US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's Visit to Myanmar

Updated On: Dec 01, 2011

On the last day of her visit, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced after her “candid, productive” conversations with Myanmar officials that Washington was ready to support further reforms and is also considering returning an ambassador to the country. Most importantly, the US may also lift sanctions against Myanmar, but Clinton emphasised again these modest, but symbolically important incentives may still come off the table if Myanmar does not satisfy the US’ three requirements.

“I told the leadership we will certainly consider the easing and elimination of sanctions as we go forward in this process together… It has to be not theoretical or rhetorical, it has to be very real, on the ground, that can be evaluated.”

Her comments may soothe the concerns of rights groups and Congress lawmakers who see the US as moving too swiftly to endorse the new leadership. Aung San Suu Kyi seems to be in support of Clinton’s conclusions, claiming that despite the risk, the new reforms are a “possible opening.”

Report: Clinton offers Myanmar first rewards for reform [Reuters, 1 December 2011]

Report: Clinton meets Suu Kyi, urges Myanmar to expand reforms [Reuters, 2 December 2011]

Report: U.S. Will Ease Some Limits on Myanmar, Clinton Says [The New York Times, 1 December 2011]

1 December 2011:

US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s visit to Myanmar led to much speculation about the future of relations between the United States, Myanmar, and also China, which has long-standing ties with and heavy investment in the country. The Myanmar government hopes that the visit will result in the lifting of sanctions and a new wave of investment in the country, while the US remains wary of lifting said sanctions. The visit has increased tension between the US and China, which suspects a US policy of encirclement, and has solidified its ties with Myanmar in response.

 Myanmar’s Reforms: Radical and Unsustainable? 

United States President Barack Obama recently said about Myanmar that “after years of darkness, we’ve seen flickers of progress.” Aung San Suu Kyi has heavily influenced this assessment of Myanmar with the declaration of her intention to rejoin mainstream politics. Hillary Clinton emphasised that her visit had a ‘fact-finding purpose’ and did not indicate sanctions would be lifted. The question that remains is whether these recent changes truly signal Myanmar’s democratization, or if it is another instance of the government’s record of suggesting change, and then reversing course to restore political repression.

In anticipation of Clinton’s visit, President Thein Sein has struck peace deals with more than 30 ethnic armies and released several hundred political prisoners, in response to the United States’ three benchmarks of negotiation: peaceful resolution of conflicts in ethnic areas, the release of all political prisoners, and Burma’s nuclear ties with Korea.

However, as many as 2000 political prisoners may still be in jail, according to human rights groups, and despite continuing talks, clashes between the military and ethnic groups continue around the country. There is no indication of an upcoming discussion regarding Myanmar’s nuclear ties to North Korea.

Report: Clinton visit sparks hope of Burma engagement [Financial Times, 21 November 2011]

Report: Clinton Arrives in Naypyidaw for First  Burma Visit [The Irrawady, November 21 2011]


Myanmar’s Optimism, and the Wary US Response

Along with its efforts to fulfil the US’s benchmark requirements, the Myanmar government has also taken steps to encourage investment in the country, by simplifying guidelines for foreign businesses and investors, although Western investors will likely continue to see the country as a region of high risk and political volatility. Key to changing this impression is the lifting of US sanctions against Myanmar, which it sees as hurting its capacity to open up further.

The United States has refrained from indicating whether the visit will lead to the lifting of sanctions, and Aung San Suu Kyi does not support the lifting of sanctions, casting a shadow on Myanmar’s hopes.

Analysis: Investing in Myanmar as Reforms Spread [The Wall Street Journal, 30 November 2011]
Report: Suu Kyi not convinced it’s time to lift Myanmar sanctions  [The Times of India, 30 November 2011]


On the Periphery: China-Myanmar Relations at Risk?

President Thein Sein’s decision to suspend work on the $3.6 billion Chinese mega-dam project has created suspicion that Myanmar is moving towards the West and away from China. 
However, analysts argue there is no such concern, considering long-standing ties between the two. As of August 2011, China has invested $9.6 billion in Myanmar in infrastructure and various energy sectors. Chinese Foreign Minister spokesman Hong Lei claims China would welcome improved relations between Myanmar and Western countries. China has nonetheless taken measures to solidify and exhibit continued close ties between itself and Myanmar, most pointedly through the signing of a defense cooperation agreement the day before Hillary Clinton’s scheduled arrival in Myanmar.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Myanmar is set to conclude tomorrow afternoon.

Report: Clinton Visit may help warm up Myanmar ties  [China Daily, 1 December 2011]

Report: Chinese and Burmese Army Chiefs Sign Agreement [The Irrawaddy, 30 November 2011]

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