When President Barack Obama entered office, Burma was one of the most repressive countries on earth, and it had been for some time. Aung San Suu Kyi, chairwoman of the National League for Democracy, had won elections in 1990, only to have Burma’s military junta refuse to recognize the results and imprison her. She subsequently won the Sakharov Prize in 1990 and the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. Despite her growing international prestige, she spent much of the next two decades under house arrest.
Soon after Obama’s election, the administration signaled a new attitude toward Burma. Speaking to press at the ASEAN summit in Thailand, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hinted at her desire to change the U.S. posture:
I think it’s important to encourage the Burmese leadership to begin to open up, to pursue the model that other ASEAN countries are following. And we have called for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, which we believe is very important. It’s so critical that she be released from this persecution that she has been under. And if she were released, that would open up opportunities, at least for my country, to expand our relationship with Burma, including investments in Burma. But it is up to the Burmese leadership.
The requirement for Suu Kyi’s release soon fell by the wayside. On August 14, 2009, just three days after the Burmese authorities sentenced Suu Kyi to another three years in prison with hard labor, Sen. Jim Webb flew to the remote capital of Naypyidaw to meet with Burma’s rulers. Conservatives criticized what they saw as appeasement, but Webb was unapologetic.
Webb’s dialogue opens the door for a rapprochement. But the U.S. openness wasn’t simply a one-sided collapse of position, as it arguably has been under Secretary of State John Kerry when it comes to Cuba and Iran. Rather, Clinton sought real progress in Burma (or Myanmar as its military rulers had renamed it) before rewarding it with legitimacy. Burmese authorities swore they sought reform and, indeed, they appeared to follow through. The government released Suu Kyi in 2010 and, the following year, the military junta transferred power to a civilian government (albeit one composed largely of former military officers).
With such progress, Clinton deemed Burma ripe for a visit to encourage further openness and change. Suu Kyi, for her part, encouraged further engagement, largely taking the wind out of the sails of the opponents who opposed engagement on the grounds that it was premature and would hurt human rights. Both Obama and Clinton subsequently traveled to the once-reclusive country, basking in the glow of diplomatic success. As Time reported:
…Air Force One navigated Rangoon’s worn runway and rolled past a thicket of tropical foliage to make Barack Obama the first ever U.S. President to visit this strategic nation wedged between India and China. Outside the airport, schoolchildren lined the street, waving Burmese and American flags. “I love Mr. Obama,” said 14-year-old Min Myat No Khin. “I love America. I love democracy.” Just a few years ago, each of those three sentiments, even if expressed by a pigtailed student, might have been prisonable offenses. But in a Burma now ruled by a hybrid military-civilian government, the culture of fear that smothered the country for nearly half a century has largely evaporated.
Alas, Burma’s openness has not lasted. Indeed, had the Obama administration waited to see the success of its formula in Burma, it might have been less enthusiastic to lift sanctions and rush blindly into engagement absent leverage with both Iran and Cuba.
Both Burma’s rulers and Suu Kyi remained silent in the face of whole-scale persecution and even massacres of Burma’s minority Rohingya Muslims. Obama returned to Burma to try to continue pressure on the Burmese government to reform, but without success. The problem was his and Clinton’s initial formulation: By frontloading economic relief and investment, U.S. policy effectively removed an incentive to continue with reform. That’s one of the reasons why the human rights situation in both Iran and Cuba has backslid so quickly in the wake of U.S. diplomatic outreach. Indeed, had Obama skipped Burma on his tour of Asia, the message about the need to continue reform might have been heard more clearly.
Still, Burma 2015 is not Burma pre-2009, so Clinton might argue that her engagement did more good than harm. Suu Kyi is free, and that’s an optic that could play well as a debate talking point or in campaign commercials. Alas, Clinton better hurry up if she wants to make it. On August 13, Burma’s ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party had an internal shake-up that left hardline pro-military factions in control as Burma heads to elections on November 8, 2015. Indeed, Burmese commentators seem to interpret the moves as the military’s attempt to maintain power.
In 2000, new Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a “Western-educated eye doctor” whom Clinton repeatedly described as a reformist, briefly opened Syria to economic reform and limited free expression. A deep chill soon replaced the so-called “Damascus Spring,” as all those who had stuck their necks out believing in Assad’s sincerity soon found themselves in prison or worse. Alas, Clinton may have fallen for the same bait-and-switch in Burma, her one success. For the sake of the Burmese public, let us hope that the end result does not mirror Syria today.