Confrontation or negotiation? Working with or against the government? These are questions that the people of Burma have faced for decades, and ones Clinton is facing after flying from an international aid conference in South Korea to Burma’s capital, Naypyidaw. But the most pressing question of all is this: Just how serious is Burma’s government about reform?
There have been promises before, seeming breakthroughs that devolved into crackdowns on democratic and opposition groups. But even those harboring suspicion say some things feel different this time.
In recent months, the nominally civilian government of President Thein Sein — who, like many members of the leadership, is a former military officer — has released some political prisoners, allowed greater media freedom and outlined an agenda of political and economic opening.
Lending weight to his actions, Aung San Suu Kyi — the charismatic leader of Burma’s long-persecuted democracy movement — has held serious discussions with the government, calling the president’s efforts sincere and supporting Clinton’s historic visit.
“People are beginning to feel a little bit hopeful,” said Myint Kyaw, 46, a longtime journalist in Rangoon. “They want to believe in it.”
No one knows with certainty what prompted the sudden and surprising moves toward reform.
One leading theory is that the government aims to throw off the yoke of China’s influence. For decades, China has been Burma’s closest ally — sending massive investment across its border as Burma has suffered under sanctions and lending diplomatic shelter in the face of international condemnation.
But that friendship came at a heavy price as China plundered Burma’s natural resources to fuel its own booming economy. Whole swaths of Burma’s forest have been razed for China, and rivers dammed to provide hydroelectricity. And Burma, along with neighboring states, has warily watched China display its increasing military power.
The wariness comes just as the Obama administration is pivoting its focus from the Middle East toward counterbalancing China’s rising power. Burma’s leadership seems eager to capitalize on that shift, apparently trying to play the superpowers against each other like two suitors competing for its hand.
“We have to look at which of the countries give us more benefits, which ones are trying to build a better relationship,” Nay Zin Latt, an adviser to Thein Sein, said in a phone interview. “But there is an expectation with a relationship of foreign investment, technology, development.”