On Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton travels to the isolated nation of Burma, officially known as Myanmar, in an attempt to spur the reform process. “After years of darkness, we’ve seen flickers of progress,” said President Barack Obama of the troubled country. By visiting Burma Secretary Clinton can test the new government’s willingness to do more.
Of course, the Clinton initiative may fail. But the main argument for the policy change is not that it is certain to work, but that the alternative has failed. Isolating Burma has achieved nothing.
Burma long has been one of the most tragic of nations. The military regime brutally suppressed the democracy movement led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Even more deadly has been the half-century long battle with ethnic groups like the Karen, which have sought autonomy in the east.
The United States and Europe responded with sanctions, but to no avail. China took advantage to secure a position of political influence and economic dominance. The military regime continued to live up to its reputation for brutality and corruption.
Now there are “flickers of progress,” as the president suggested. A badly flawed election last year; a new, nominally civilian government; the release of a few political prisoners; liberty for Ms. Suu Kyi, who also has been meeting with government ministers; and a slight break between Burma and its chief patron, Beijing.
Individually these are but small changes, and the Burmese military has previously offered tantalizing reforms only to reverse course, intensifying its brutal suppression of any opposition. However, the combination of many small steps offers hope that something more real may be happening this time. Even Suu Kyi has expressed optimism, and is preparing to reenter politics—legally.
Equally important is the increasing evidence that Burma wants to balance the influence of its imperious neighbor China. For all of the worries in America about Beijing’s growing clout around the world, the People’s Republic of China is finding out—just as the United States discovered years ago—that friends can be expensive to buy and often don’t stay bought.
Engaging Burma could encourage that state to continue on a more independent course—separate from China. The regime isn’t likely to dump its patron, but any distance between the two would be progress. The PRC’s churlish reaction to the Clinton initiative suggests that Beijing is concerned.
An adjustment in U.S. policy toward Burma was sorely needed. Isolation resulted in few positive outcomes. For the most part Asian nations, even America’s friends, ignored U.S. and European sanctions. The regime did not fall; Suu Kyi was not freed; democracy did not come; the ethnic groups did not enjoy peace. The generals simply tightened their grip.
Although this policy failure long has been obvious, no one wanted to “reward” the Burmese regime by dropping economic penalties. This left U.S. policy stuck in a political cul-de-sac. Sanctions were ineffective, doing nothing to advance human rights. But they could not be changed for the sake of appearance.
Nascent reform in Burma now offers Washington an opportunity to shift course. No one should get their hopes up. The regime may intend to only adopt a few reforms as window-dressing to win Western aid. Even if the commitment to change is real, the road to a better life for the Burmese people remains long and hard.
Nevertheless, for the first time in years there truly are “flickers of progress” in Burma. The administration is right to try to turn these flickers into something more. A desperately poor and oppressed people deserve a better life.