“After years of darkness, we’ve seen flickers of progress,” Obama said from Indonesia, where he was attending a summit with Asian leaders, who anointed Burma the next chair of their regional grouping.
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 freedom for the media and outlined an agenda of political and economic opening. The shifts this year come as the leaders of Burma, also known as Myanmar, seem to be reevaluating their regional allegiances. As they make overtures to the United States, they are showing increasing concern about the power and assertiveness of longtime ally China.
China issued a veiled warning after Obama’s announcement that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton would visit Burma on Dec. 1 and 2.
“We are willing to see the U.S. and other Western countries improve contacts with Myanmar and make better relations,” said Liu Weimin, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman in Beijing. “At the same time, we hope that both the domestic and foreign policies of Myanmar are conducive for the peace and stability of Myanmar.”
In making his decision, Obama consulted with Suu Kyi during a 20-minute phone call while en route to Indonesia — the first conversation between them. According to senior administration officials, the two compared thoughts on the new leadership’s commitment to reform in a country that has seen five decades of repressive military rule, isolation from the West and ethnic violence.
A gamble by Suu Kyi
For Suu Kyi, a 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, the decision to work with the government is a gamble fraught with national and personal consequences. Burma seemed similarly poised for reform two decades ago when her party decisively won a 1990 general election. Instead, the ruling military junta barred Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy from power and kept her under house arrest for most of the next two decades.
In an interview Thursday with the Telegraph, a British newspaper, Suu Kyi voiced optimism about the measures undertaken by the new government. “There has been change, not sufficient yet but we’ll get there,” she said. “I hope it will come along steadily and at a fast enough pace to make it credible. With the right kind of institutions, starting with the rule of law, Burma could progress very quickly.”
In her conversation with Obama, Suu Kyi endorsed his intention to send Clinton to Burma as a way to encourage the government to build on its actions.