Reform in Burma: Opening for the U.S.

Cebu City, Philippines - In October I wrote about the halting, confusing, but encouraging political reforms in Burma (Myanmar) over the past year. It's been an exciting few weeks since then. At the ASEAN summit in Bali last month, President Obama announced that Secretary of State Clinton would go to Burma-- the first visit of a Secretary of State since John Foster Dulles went to Yangon in 1955. The decision to visit, advertised as a test of Burma's commitment to democratic reform, was understood widely as a small carrot to encourage further progress. Many, however, have criticized the Obama administration for rushing to reward one of the world's most despotic regimes for what have been mostly cosmetic, reversible changes.

The move was made possible largely thanks to the generous political cover of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma's foremost opposition leader and President Obama's fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner. Ms. Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy, which sat out last year's elections in protest, has decided to contest an upcoming election. Ms. Suu Kyi will herself run in the election, and is all but certain to be filling a seat in parliament. Though she has spent the better part of the past two decades under house arrest and has as good reason as anyone to suspect the motives of President Thein Sein's incipient reforms, Ms. Suu Kyi has been upfront in her readiness to meet the government's reforms in good faith.

Secretary Clinton sat down with Ms. Suu Kyi-- it was their first face-to-face meeting after much previous correspondence-- and met with President Thein Sein, addressing a number of issues that have kept the U.S. and Burma apart. Atop the agenda was Burma's collusion with North Korea on missile and (possibly) nuclear technology. Secretary Clinton also pushed Thein Sein to continue internal reforms by freeing political prisoners and resolving ongoing conflicts with ethnic minority groups.

Coming out of the visit, Secretary Clinton announced that the U.S. would relax some restrictions on economic development aid, allowing the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to work in Burma, and promising $1.2 million in health, education and humanitarian projects to be administered by the United Nations. She and Thein Sein also discussed the possibility of upgrading diplomatic relations and exchanging ambassadors-- a move that Ms. Suu Kyi has also advocated.

In the week since the Secretary's visit, some reciprocal progress has already been made in Burma: Public protest has been legalized, though protesters must register with the government five days in advance, and provide authorities with the substance of their protest. Additionally, the government signed a cease-fire with the Shan State Army, a rebel group in Eastern Burma, and has plans to open two border crossings to Thailand that have both been closed for over a year.

Of course, these are just the first stirrings of change, and it would be unwise to welcome Burma into the brotherhood of democracies just yet. Over 1,600 political prisoners, including many journalists, remain incarcerated, and the government has unresolved conflicts with Karen and Kachin minority groups. Given the way the government brutally suppressed an uprising of monks in 2007, it would be naive to think such violence lies safely in the past.

But President Thein Sein seems earnest in his desire to reform Burma. He has travelled around Southeast Asia more than most of his fellow Generals, and probably has a clear picture of just how far Burma lags behind its neighbors. While it's surely fun to have absolute power, it's probably less fun if you're ruling a poor and backwards country. The opaque government is believed to be sharply divided, with hardliners eager to undermine any attempt at change. Garnering small prizes like a visit from Secretary Clinton is likely to solidify the position of reformers and encourage more genuine progress. U.S. economic sanctions remain in place, as they should, and Burma's small steps toward democratic governance should be met equally with gestures such as those announced last week.

Of course, the U.S. has a strategic reason for promoting a more democratic Burma: seeking another ally to counterbalance growing Chinese power in the region. The major story of President Obama's appearance at the ASEAN Summit was how explicitly he delineated what has long been tacitly understood as the goal of U.S. policy in the region: just as China desires a "string of pearls"-- military bases and diplomatic alliances around the Indian Ocean-- the U.S. seeks strong bilateral relationships with the states surrounding China. In a recent FT op-ed National Security Advisor Tom Donilon made clear the "return" of the U.S. to Asia, forecasting "an intensified American role in this vital region."

At the Summit, President Obama waded into a long-standing dispute over the sea lanes and resources of the South China Sea, heading a group of ASEAN leaders in confronting Premier Wen Jiabao over China's sweeping and aggressive claim to the entire sea. While President Obama didn't take an explicit position in the dispute, Secretary Clinton, in a visit to Manila, recently referred to it as the "West Philippine Sea," which has delighted the media and government here. Premier Wen seemed surprised and somewhat unnerved, and Xinhua, the Chinese state-controlled media has fired back with headlines like "South China Sea matters not a whit to Philippines, U.S."

Since the arrival of the military junta in 1962, Burma has acted essentially as a Chinese vassal state, wholly dependent on its neighbor to the north for trade and investment. Among the more substantive changes of the recent months, however, President Thein Sein responded to a popular outcry against the construction of a dam, canceling the Chinese-led project and infuriating Beijing. While Burma and China are sure to remain closely allied, the recent tussle appears to signal Thein Sein's discomfort at depending exclusively on this alliance. The U.S. has exploited this opening to gain some influence with Burma and balance against Chinese regional hegemony.

The events of the past months have been good progress in Burma, but swift regression is possible, and a Burma that recedes to total authoritarianism is a Burma that drops right back into China's pocket. The U.S. is wise to meet their baby steps with baby steps, and continue to encourage reform, sluggish though it will surely be.