Friday, July 17, 2009

Clinton’s Burma Agenda

The Irrawaddy News

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made no mention of Burma in her foreign policy speech in Washington this week, but she renewed the US offer to talk with the Iranian regime—but the offer and opportunity would not remain indefinitely, she warned.

Clinton is on her way to Asia—this is her second trip—to attend the 42th Asean Ministerial Meeting in Phuket. Whether she wants it or not, the Burma and North Korea issues will likely dominate the meeting. Clinton, who said she was deeply troubled by the decision by the Burmese regime to charge Suu Kyi with a baseless crime, is not unprepared to speak on the Burma issue, but a US policy review on Burma that began in February is still pending.

During her first trip to Jakarta, Clinton said, “Clearly, the path we have taken in imposing sanctions hasn’t influenced the Burmese junta.” Then she added that the policy adopted by neighboring countries of “reaching out and trying to engage them has not influenced them, either.”

The policy review on Burma is still pending, with the Obama administration wanting to take a different policy direction on Burma from the previous Bush administration. The new policy will probably be a mix of carrots and sticks, but recent events have complicated apparent indications favoring increased diplomacy and outreach from Washington towards Burma’s rulers.

“The recent events with Aung San Suu Kyi are just deeply, deeply concerning, and it makes it very difficult going forward,” said Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs told US lawmakers during his confirmation hearing last month.

“We're in the midst of a very sensitive review,” he said. “We are looking at the situation of the trial and what the junta is considering going forward. It will play into our review.”

If Suu Kyi’s bizarre trial has played a role in the policy review—other sensitive issues include the release of 2,100 political prisoners, the relationship with ethnic groups along the Burmese border with China and Thailand, and the upcoming election in 2010—then no doubt the issue of Burma’s shady relationship with North Korea will also play a part.

Though Washington’s policy review remains incomplete, the US is not without a policy and diplomatic tools. The Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Scot Marciel, assured that Clinton would bring up the issue of Burma during the meeting with Asean foreign ministers.

“I don't want to try to predict exactly what she's [Clinton] going to say. I'm confident that she will raise Burma and express our concerns quite clearly,” Marciel said.

“The fundamental policy remains the same, which is to do whatever we can to try to encourage progress in Burma,” he said.

“By progress, I mean the beginning of a dialogue between the government and the opposition and the ethnic minority groups, release of political prisoners and improved governance and, we would hope, more of an opening to the international community,” he said.

Since the trial began in May, the international pressure on Burma has been sustained. The military leaders, diplomats believed, were shocked at the swift and unified reaction from the international community, including Asean and China. As things stand at the moment, the bizarre trial that appeared to be progressing fast in its initial stages has slowed down—perhaps this is a sign that the junta is having second thoughts.

The Burmese leaders received two separate high level visits: one led by Singapore’s senior minister Goh Chok Tong and the other from UN chief Ban Ki-moon. They both delivered a firm message to the regime leaders to make significant progress in national reconciliation.

The regime showed its uncompromising stance when meeting visiting UN chief Ban Ki-moon, who was not allowed to meet Suu Kyi. However, Ban did speak out for the need for an inclusive road map towards democracy, the release of political prisoners and for free and fair elections. Though he left empty-handed, his public remarks gained him kudos in Burma.

In a nutshell, the US is likely to search for more effective ways to encourage dialogue between the military, the opposition and the ethnic nationalities, and to gain the release of political prisoners and make steps towards broad-based reform. It will not be surprising to see more engagement by US officials and diplomats with the regime if the doors are opened.

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