By Greg Poling
For the first time since John Foster Dulles did it in 1955, a U.S. Secretary of State just wrapped up a visit to long-secluded Myanmar. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with government leaders, including President Thein Sein, in the current capital of Naypyidaw, as well as democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, in the former capital of Yangon during her November 30-December 2 visit. The trip had been announced by President Barack Obama just two weeks earlier in a surprise move on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit. Both the suddenness of the announcement and the rapid deployment of Secretary Clinton speak to the breathtaking speed with which the former pariah state has attracted international attention with its reforms.
Despite the long list of reforms that have occurred in Myanmar over the last several months – easing censorship, unblocking the Internet, amnesties that included some political prisoners, ceasefires to end longstanding violence with several ethnic minority groups, signing a vague law permitting right of assembly, allowing unions and worker strikes, and permitting Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) to register and run for office – critics warn that the Obama administration is running a serious risk by sending Clinton to Myanmar, risking political embarrassment should reforms prove illusory. Others insist that greater U.S. engagement is crucial to boost the domestic legitimacy and support for Myanmar’s reformers to keep up the momentum.
Clinton touched down in Naypyidaw on November 30 and spent a day in the capital meeting with prominent Myanmar officials. She spoke with President Thein Sein, Foreign Minister Wumma Maung Lwin, Lower House Speaker Thura Shwe Mann, and members of Parliament. Her meeting with Thein Sein was described as “workmanlike” by a State Department official, who also noted that the president acknowledged that his country still has much to do to continue its reforms.
The secretary traveled from Naypyidaw to the former capital of Yangon for a dinner with opposition leader Suu Kyi on December 1, followed by a formal meeting with her and key members of her NLD the next day. Clinton also met with representatives of Myanmar’s ethnic minority groups and visited Yangon’s most famous landmark, the Shwedagon Pagoda.
Clinton made a number of concrete announcements while in Myanmar. Since sanctions prevent the United States from providing aid to the government, Clinton announced a package of $1.2 million to assist civil society groups in the fields of microfinance, healthcare, and aid to landmine victims. She also announced that United States would support United Nations assistance for healthcare and small businesses as well as strengthening of its programs for health, micro-finance, and counter-narcotics. The secretary invited Myanmar to join the U.S.-backed Lower Mekong Initiative that currently includes Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam, and discussed the possibility of exchanging ambassadors should Myanmar’s reforms continue.
In what was potentially the most important announcement for Myanmar’s long-term reform, Clinton announced that the United States would no longer block assistance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. The details of this announcement remain unclear. The United States is required by law under current sanctions legislation to vote “no” on any IMF and World Bank assistance to Myanmar, though its vote alone is not sufficient to block such aid. The sanctions legislation also requires that the United States lobby other countries to vote “no,” although what that provision requires is necessarily ambiguous. Clinton’s announcement seemed to suggest that the United States will now offer only token opposition to assistance from the international financial institutions. The new U.S. policy was underscored when Suu Kyi announced after her meeting with Clinton that the World Bank would send an assessment team to Myanmar.
Gregory Poling is a Research Assistant with the CSIS Southeast Asia Program.