Clinton made the trip last December, stating that the United States is prepared to “walk the path of reform” with the Burmese leadership. In June, the Obama administration formally lifted prohibitions on U.S. economic investment in Burma, opening the door for American companies, particularly in the energy sector.
Suu Kyi visited Washington in September to receive the Congressional Gold Medal and meet with Obama, and that same month, Sein attended the U.N. General Assembly in New York, where he praised Suu Kyi and heralded “amazing changes” in Burma.
U.S. foreign policy experts who have recently visited the country said they saw signs of a serious commitment to reform. In a paper for the Brookings Institution, Jeffrey Bader, who served as senior director for East Asian Affairs on the National Security Council from 2009 to 2011, said newspapers published “lively debates” and ordinary people “spoke of the profound change in atmosphere and of their willingness to speak out on matters where there was fear and silence only recently.”
Michael Green, senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, also said he found a “serious intention” to reform the political system and get the military “out of the government.” But he cautioned that the movement is in a “very precarious state,” noting that the country’s generals are guaranteed 25 percent of the parliamentary seats and maintain control of the chairmanship.
“But everyone who’s in the cabinet, in the president’s office, and, of course, Aung San Suu Kyi, are working together and are determined to do this,” said Green, former senior director for Asian affairs at the NSC in the George W. Bush administration. “So there is enough of a kernel . . . of seriousness to make the president’s trip worthwhile.”
Human rights activists, however, said that whatever progress Burma has made has suffered significant setbacks in the past several months, as the ethnic violence between the Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims has accelerated. Burma released 452 prisoners this week in a good faith move ahead of Obama’s visit, but none were political detainees.
Samantha Power, the NSC’s senior director for multilateral affairs and human rights, said the Burmese government has taken some steps to address the abuses, sending in national troops to areas where local forces have been violent.
But, she added, “There has to be a sustainable security solution so that people aren’t living in the kind of fear and, really, terror that they’re living with today.”