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Can Clinton Undo Damage in Burma?

“Historic” diplomatic engagements generally come with the greatest of expectations. Such is the atmosphere surrounding Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s arrival in Burma today. It is a test not only of Clinton’s preparation and authority, but of the Obama administration’s attempts to play catch-up in Asia.

The administration of George W. Bush was consistent and sensible in building or strengthening alliances with allies in the region like India and South Korea–nations given the cold shoulder initially by Obama, thus weakening our ability to play a more constructive and balanced role in the region–and of stepping up efforts to halt the spread of nuclear technology there. So the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia is welcome. Indeed, there is evidence the administration is being more honest about its previous failures:

Administration officials said Mrs. Clinton first wanted to see whether Mr. Thein Sein’s government was prepared to take his own steps. Officials remain wary, disappointed that the government has not freed more of the 1,600 political prisoners still being held and that Mr. Thein Sein recently denied the existence of any of them. The senior administration official also noted that the administration’s initial efforts to engage Myanmar’s leaders in 2009 were “abysmal failures.”

That would be an accurate description. The fallout from Senator Jim Webb’s disastrous 2009 trip to Burma on behalf of the administration was severe. Webb met with pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest, and immediately held a press conference to claim Suu Kyi supported lifting some sanctions on the junta running Burma. Suu Kyi was forced to correct the record, pointing out that she had not discussed the matter with Webb.

Other democracy activists in Burma dismissed Webb’s stunt as “ignorant” and “damaging to our democracy movement.” Additionally, following the visit, the Burmese regime stepped up its attacks on ethnic minorities, aggravating the refugee crisis there and in bordering states.

Webb’s visit was a self-evident failure, but it’s a good sign that the administration can admit this. Clinton’s trip is more of a carrot-and-stick approach: she is both rewarding improved behavior of new Burmese President U Thein Sein while demanding the release of the regime’s approximately 1,600 political prisoners and full transparency on Burma’s apparent nuclear cooperation with North Korea.

The Council on Foreign Relations’ Joshua Kurlantzick lays out four markers by which Clinton’s engagement should be measured: the freeing of all political prisoners, obtaining better access to Burmese military leaders, expanding engagement and communication to the entire country, and getting the story straight on the Burma-North Korea relationship.

The trip is not receiving unanimous approval. “Secretary Clinton’s visit represents a monumental overture to an outlaw regime whose D.N.A. remains fundamentally brutal,” objected Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Republican chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Ros-Lehtinen’s skepticism is prudent; the Burmese thaw is attracting comparisons to Mikhail Gorbachev’s institution of perestroika and glasnost in the waning years of the Soviet Union, but such comparisons are as yet unearned. If Clinton is successful, however, it may finally bury the Obama administration’s initial fetish for toothless, supplicatory diplomacy that has been rightly discredited and which caused so much damage in Burma the last time around.


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