Will Clinton's visit spark further changes in Burma?

Not only the US but also other ASEAN countries will watch this visit closely to see whether Burma’s leaders are ready and willing to make radical changes in both their internal and external policies

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Hilary Clinton is hosted by President Thein Sein
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Loc Doan
On 2 December 2011 10:03

On Wednesday, Hillary Clinton embarked on a three-day trip to Burma (or Myanmar); the first top-level US visit to this Southeast Asian country for half a century.

This historic visit has been prompted by what President Obama, in his statement at the recent East Asia Summit, termed “flickers of progress” in Burma’s domestic and foreign policy. However, Clinton’s trip also has to be seen as part of a much wider refocusing of American foreign policy towards Asia.

Until recently, a combination of the political situation in Burma and the US’ strong criticism of the military regime’s record on human rights, meant that such a high-ranking visit would have been unthinkable.

Yet, since Burma’s general election in November 2010 - the first for two decades - Burmese leaders have taken significant steps towards political reform. These include the establishment of a (nominally) civilian government to replace the military rule, the release of political prisoners, the limitation of media restriction, and changes in electoral laws to allow opposition leaders and parties, notably Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy, to participate in elections.

It is clear that these are very preliminary moves. Furthermore, given false promises made by Burma’s military leaders in the past, political observers and US officials are right to be cautious about the latest initiatives coming out of Naypyidaw. However, as acknowledged by President Obama, “taken together, these are the most important steps toward reform in Burma that we’ve seen in years.”

These moves towards domestic reform may be part of wider policy shifts, particular on the international front.

For most of its post-colonial history, Burma has had limited engagement with global and regional systems - though it has been a member of ASEAN since 1997. This general isolation has been reinforced in recent years by sanctions imposed by Western countries because of its human rights record which, in turn, has prompted the Burmese military to become heavily reliant on China for their diplomatic, economic and military support over the last twenty years.

There are now signs of change. While Beijing may remain a vital economic and political ally, it is no longer the only power that Burma turns to.

The decision of Burma’s newly elected president, Thein Sein, to suspend the construction of a Chinese-funded hydroelectric dam at Myitsone to Beijing’s shock, showed strained relations between Burma and its northern neighbour. This unexpected move has been followed by the preliminary strengthening of ties with other neighbouring countries.

Less than two weeks after his decision to halt the Myitsone Dam project, Thein Sein embarked a four-day visit to India. Then, on November 14th, instead of visiting China as his predecessors used to, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, Burma’s new Commander-in-Chief of Defence, chose Vietnam for his first official trip abroad.

The shift of Burma’s foreign policy away from China fits very well Washington’s recently defined Asian strategy. It is clearly geared towards limiting China’s regional power and supporting those counties that are either its competitors for regional influence (e.g. India) or increasingly worried by its assertive policies towards the region (e.g. Vietnam).

The US would clearly like to see links between itself and the democratic regimes of Asia replace Burmese dependence on China. That would also please ASEAN members, who are becoming concerned with China’s growing assertiveness.

In addition, Burma, as the ‘black sheep’ of the region, has long been an embarrassment to ASEAN and a barrier to the establishment of effective relations with the West, notably with the EU. Domestic reform and the realignment of Burmese foreign policy could have major benefits for ASEAN, which has granted Burma the rotating chairmanship of the organisation in 2014.

However, as with the moves towards domestic reform, Burma’s foreign policy developments do need to be viewed with caution, for there are indications that bets are being hedged.

On November 28th - two days before Clinton’s arrival - General Min Aung Hlaing, visited Beijing, where he was received by China’s Vice President Xi Jinping, who is tipped to replace Hu Jintao next year.

During the discussion, it has been reported that the General pledged to strengthen military exchanges and cooperation with China. Hence, there are mixed messages about Burma’s stance.

Not only the US but also other ASEAN countries will watch this visit closely to see whether Burma’s leaders are ready and willing to make radical changes in both their internal and external policies. 

Loc Doan is a Research Associate at the Global Policy Institute 

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