As reported yesterday, following a meeting with Myanmar president Thein Sein, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the United States would now be easing the American ban on imports from Myanmar, which will be enormously beneficial to the Myanmar economy. This follows a similar move by the European Union, which now has allowed Myanmar to join the Generalized System of Preferences scheme it has for poor countries to access the EU market.
Though the announcement was important, just as important was the fact that Clinton met with Thein Sein during his trip to the United States —the United Nations General Assembly period is packed with bilaterals, and it would not have been hard for her to skip one more bilateral—and publicly handed Myanmar a reward that reflected positively on President Thein Sein. Though most of the Myanmar policy community in the United States has been focused this past week on the historic visit to the United States of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi —and rightly praised her enormous fortitude and role in keeping democracy alive in Myanmar—Thein Sein’s role in the reforms has been the central one over the past two years. This is not moral equivalence: Thein Sein has a military background, and had senior positions of power during periods when the Burmese military harshly repressed dissidents; Suu Kyi is rightly a global icon for having faced the most trying circumstances possible, and living to inspire generations of Burmese.
But the fact is, for reform to proceed, and for the United States to play a role, Thein Sein is in charge, at least for now, before the planned elections in 2015. To have had him arrive in the United States and not get a substantial visit, and reward, while at the same time Suu Kyi tours America, might have created significant trouble back in Naypyidaw.