U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton laid out a path to ease sanctions during a trip to Myanmar as she aimed to embolden reformers trying to roll back five decades of military rule.
Clinton met separately with Myanmar’s president, Thein Sein, and its most prominent dissident and democracy icon, Aung San Suu Kyi, during her three-day visit, telling both that the U.S. stands ready to lift punitive measures if the government builds upon moves to grant greater political freedoms. Suu Kyi, who Clinton called an “inspiration,” said the visit may pave the way for a “new future” in Myanmar.
“I am cautiously hopeful,” Clinton told reporters in Yangon yesterday before departing. “Reformers both inside and outside the government have our support, and it will increase as we see actions taken that will further the hopes and aspirations of the people.”
Clinton’s visit may help ease the international isolation of Myanmar, one of Asia’s poorest countries, where Internet and phone usage is sparse and cash is required for most transactions. Thein Sein has released hundreds of political prisoners, eased censorship and started a dialogue with Suu Kyi since his junta-backed party won an election last year to end five decades of military rule.
“This will be the beginning of a new future for all of us provided we can maintain it,” Suu Kyi said before embracing Clinton yesterday on the veranda of the lakeside home, where she spent 15 years under house arrest. “Because of this engagement, our way ahead will be clearer and we will be able to trust that the process of democratization will move forward.”
Clinton said the U.S. would provide assistance to groups providing microcredit, health care, English-language training and help for land-mine victims. The programs will cost the U.S. $1.2 million, according to an administration official who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity.
Clinton’s “confidence-building measures” may help reformers come forward, said Derek Tonkin, a former U.K. ambassador to Vietnam, Thailand and Laos and now chairman of Network Myanmar, a U.K.-based group that promotes reconciliation.
“There are probably many people sitting on the fence, wondering what they ought to be doing,” Tonkin said of reform-minded members of the government. “What she has done is very important. The longer this process is maintained the more likely that the changes that we’ve seen will be sustained and in due course be irreversible.”
A political breakthrough would allow U.S. and European companies greater access to a market of 62 million people who are dependent on neighbors China, India and Thailand to grow one of Asia’s smallest economies. Those countries poured more than $25 billion into ports, power plants and pipelines to capitalize on Myanmar’s rich natural resources and strategic location on the Indian Ocean.
U.S. sanctions against Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, have been tightening since 1988, when President Ronald Reagan suspended aid and banned arms sales after soldiers killed about 3,000 student protesters, according to an estimate by Human Rights Watch. A series of congressional acts and presidential orders since then have banned imports, restricted money transfers, curbed aid money, frozen assets, prevented engagement by the World Bank and other agencies and targeted jewelry with gemstones originating in Myanmar.
Before President Bill Clinton banned new investment in 1997, boycott threats prompted U.S. companies such as PepsiCo Inc., Levi-Strauss & Co. and Apple Inc. to leave Myanmar. Chevron Corp., based in San Ramon, California, is one of the few U.S. businesses operating in the country, having obtained a 28.3 percent stake in a gas field and pipeline that stretches to Thailand through its 2005 purchase of Unocal Corp., which made its investment prior to the 1997 ban.
Clinton told Thein Sein that the U.S. would loosen restrictions on engagement by the World Bank and the United Nations, she told reporters on Dec. 1. Other measures leading toward an end to sanctions, including an upgrade in diplomatic relations, would occur if Myanmar takes additional steps, such as releasing more than 1,000 political prisoners still behind bars, she said.
“We agreed that an important test of the government’s stated commitment to reform and change will be the unconditional release of all prisoners of conscience,” Clinton said after meeting with Suu Kyi.
Thein Sein told Clinton that his government would release more political prisoners, sever military ties with North Korea and seek new ways to ease violence with ethnic groups seeking more autonomy, according to a U.S. official speaking on condition of anonymity.
At a Dec. 1 dinner with Clinton, Suu Kyi said the U.S. should support reformers in Myanmar’s government and encourage officials who are still unsure to join them in fighting hardliners opposed to more political freedom, the official said.
Yesterday, Clinton and Suu Kyi strolled through the yard in front of her two-story paint-chipped house, where dozens of local and foreign journalists had gathered. During their meeting, Suu Kyi acknowledged opposition in some parts of the U.S. to engagement with Myanmar, and made the point that it was important to listen to voices inside the country, the U.S. official said.
Suu Kyi, 66, will run in an election for the first time after her party voted to rejoin the political process on Nov. 18. Last month, she said Thein Sein was “very genuine in his desire for the process of democratization.”
The Nobel laureate called for international agencies to help improve health and education in Myanmar. She also said her country aims to maintain “good, friendly” relations with China.
“If we go forward together, I’m confident that there will be no turning back from the road towards democracy,” Suu Kyi told reporters in a 10-minute joint appearance with Clinton. “We are not on that road yet, but we hope to get there as soon as possible with the help and understanding of our friends.”