When Burma declared last month it would release more than 6,000 prisoners, it was seen as a possible sign that a major shift could be underway there. President Obama, in announcing Friday that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton would be traveling to the country, cited the prisoner release as an important step toward reform.
But the reality is that only an estimated 200 of those released turned out to be political prisoners. None of the most prominent opposition leaders were among them.
For Burmese exiles and pro-democracy groups, that means Clinton’s trip is an opportunity to push the ruling junta to do more before she even arrives.
“It will be the only way to justify such a high-level official,” said Aung Din, director of U.S. Campaign for Burma and a former Burmese prisoner.
Obama said that the United States remains concerned about Burma’s closed political system, as well as its treatment of political prisoners and minorities. For that reason, among others, the announcement of Clinton’s upcoming trip came as a surprise to the close-knit Burma community in Washington. Some worry it may be coming too soon.
“It gives them prestige, legitimacy, implies in part that this is a reformist government when there’s still such a long way to go,” said Mike Mitchell, a Washington-based activist who has worked with the Burmese democracy movement for more than 20 years. “This isn’t a revolution like in Tunisia or Egypt. This has been a series of small steps forward by a regime that up until seven months ago was one of the most ostracized in the world and for good reason.”
Many interpreted the visit as being part of the Obama administration’s new pivot toward Asia and an effort to counterbalance China’s rising power and influence in the region.
Burma has long relied on China as its key ally, but in recent months has shown signs of anxiety over the relationship. Some of its recent moves — most notably its suspension of an unpopular Chinese-funded dam project — have seemed to signal that the junta is willing to warm to the West.
“There’s a lot of negative sentiment against China among the Burmese people and government,” said Aung Din. “There is anxiety about how much China will push back or demand concessions because of the cancellation of the dam, and how it will behave going into the future.”
The visit by Clinton could be a chance to capitalize on that emerging rift.
“A lot of this has to do with China, and they need to be careful how that’s perceived,” said Michael Green, a former senior official on the National Security Council. “We can’t get sucked into a cynical approach of playing power balance games as China now does. We can’t be seen as putting that ahead of our values on human rights and democracy. And the other danger is if others in the region like India or Japan misinterpret this as a sign that it’s now okay to turn on the spigots of aid to Burma.”
Burma has previously shown signs of reform, only to backtrack, Green and others noted. The fact that Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi endorsed Clinton’s visit indicates there may be a real chance that this time could be different.
But the proof will be in what tangible actions Burma is willing to deliver with Clinton’s visit — actions like the release of more political prisoners.