December 2, 2011

“IF WE GO FORWARD together, I’m confident there will be no turning back from the road to democracy,” Aung San Suu Kyi told the first U.S. secretary of state to visit Burma in half a century. “We are not on that road yet, but we hope to get there as soon as possible with our friends.”

Three points in that statement are worth noting. First, Aung San Suu Kyi, the oft-imprisoned leader of Burma’s democracy movement, understands that her country is not only not yet a democracy but is not even on the way there. Second, that daunting reality has not discouraged her from seizing an opening provided by the liberalization in Burma in recent months. And third, she has welcomed the United States’s cautious engagement to promote further reform.

During her brief visit to Burma this week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton did a great deal to cement the United States’s standing as a friend to the country’s democrats. She met, first and respectfully, with the country’s leaders, who call their country Myanmar and who received her in the surreal capital they only recently constructed — reportedly on an astrologer’s advice — far from any population centers. In those meetings, Ms. Clinton offered modest improvements in the long-frozen relationship between the two countries and promised more if the regime democratizes.

Ms. Clinton then held two long meetings with Aung San Suu Kyi, whom she had never met. She paid tribute to the Nobel Peace Prize laureate’s “fearlessness in the face of intimidation and her serenity through decades of isolation.” More to the point, she interacted with Aung San Suu Kyi as one political actor with another, the role the Burmese activist for two decades has sought for herself: not a saint but a politician who wants to play a significant role in the development of her nation.

Most important, Ms. Clinton, after her discussions with both President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi, laid out clear goals. “[W]e want to see all political prisoners released,” she said. “We want to see a serious effort at peace and reconciliation, we want to see dates set for the election, and then we will be very open to matching those actions with our own.” Similarly, Aung San Suu Kyi said that Burma needs laws allowing the media and political parties to operate freely — and independent judges who will enforce those laws.

It’s important to remember, as Ms. Clinton made clear, that beyond Rangoon and the capital city of Naypyidaw, terrible suffering continues. The army has continued to use rape as a weapon in its conflicts against ethnic minorities. Many former student leaders, Buddhist monks and other peaceful democracy advocates remain locked up, reportedly in dismal conditions.

And Burmese officials have committed to no deadlines for further progress. As the country’s leading Catholic prelate, Archbishop Charles Bo of Rangoon, said Friday: “The government needs to release the remaining political prisoners to show that they are serious about democratic reform.” And it needs to do so soon.