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Assessing Myanmar's Reforms

Author: Jayshree Bajoria
Updated: December 1, 2011

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The three-day visit by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Myanmar that started Wednesday is a milestone for a country, which until recently was ruled by one of world's most repressive regimes. In the country to assess if recent openings by the military-backed government are real, Clinton met with President Thein Sein (NYT) and called for the release of all political prisoners, raised questions about military abuses, and asked the government to sever military ties to North Korea.

What's at Stake

Clinton's visit to Myanmar, a first by a U.S. secretary of State in over half a century, is seen as part of a larger U.S. effort to increase engagement in the region and to counter China's growing military and economic influence. As this Backgrounder notes, the Obama administration abandoned isolating the regime in September 2009 in favor of direct talks, acknowledging the failure of sanctions. However, the sanctions, which mostly focus on trade and investment, will stay in place unless there are further reforms and Washington is convinced that they will last, Clinton said. At the same time, she announced that Washington will no longer block programs by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and will support international development efforts.

For Myanmar, many analysts say, the reforms are an effort by the government to "throw off the yoke of China's influence" (WashPost). Myanmar has long been referred to as China's "client state," with Beijing its principal political and economic backer. But as journalist Lindsay Murdoch notes, this has come at a high price, such as plundering of Myanmar's natural resources (SMH) in the north. In addition, international isolation and a repressive military regime left what was once the richest economy in the region impoverished and barely functioning. The new leaders now hope for economic opening and international investment from the West.

The Debate

In the last couple of months, Myanmar's government has implemented a series of modest democratic reforms: releasing at least one hundred and twenty political prisoners, easing media censorship, engaging ethnic armed groups, and amending the political party registration law to allow democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party to participate the upcoming elections.

But rights groups say these aren't enough. According to Amnesty International, around two thousand political prisoners remain in conditions that fall short of international standards. Freedom House says the civilian-led government is still dominated by former generals and reports that the military has stepped up human rights violations in ethnic minority areas in the last several months. Armed conflict continues in the northern state of Kachin and parts of Shan state. Suspicions of Myanmar's cooperation with North Korea (WashPost) to develop nuclear weapons also remain a concern for Washington.

Policy Options

During her visit, Clinton should ensure the release of all political prisoners; obtain regular interaction with senior members of Myanmar's military; and negotiate complete access to the country for U.S. diplomats, the UN, and other observers, writes CFR's Joshua Kurlantzick. To urge continued reforms in Myanmar, experts say Washington should work more closely with members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a regional group Myanmar is set to chair in 2014.

Speaking to an audience at CFR, Myanmar's Suu Kyi says rule of law and ethnic harmony is essential for a peaceful, democratic society. A new report from the International Crisis Group says the West must not make complete resolution of ethnic conflicts a prerequisite for lifting sanctions. Instead, once peace agreements are reached, the report says, the international community should provide development assistance and peace-building support.

Background Materials

Asia Society's Suzanne DiMaggio writes that Clinton should press Myanmar's leaders to allow an International Atomic Energy Agency fact-finding team to investigate issues related to nuclear cooperation from Pyongyang (CNN).

Watch the full video of Aung San Suu Kyi as she discusses recent changes in Myanmar, her decision to rejoin the political system, and Myanmar-U.S. relations.

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Backgrounder

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