Clinton Presses Burma to Release Nobel Laureate, Offering Possible Benefits

The release of Aung San Suu Kyi is "critical" to easing the strained relations between Burma and the United States, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said.
The release of Aung San Suu Kyi is "critical" to easing the strained relations between Burma and the United States, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said. (By Apichart Weerawong -- Associated Press)
By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 23, 2009

PHUKET, Thailand, July 22 -- Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made an explicit appeal to Burma on Wednesday to release jailed Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, offering the prospect of direct U.S. investment in the repressive Southeast Asian nation.

The release of Suu Kyi is "critical" to easing the strained relations between Burma and the United States, Clinton said. "If she were released, that would open up opportunities at least for my country to expand our relationship with Burma, including investments in Burma," she told reporters while attending a regional security forum.

President Obama renewed a year-long investment ban on Burma on May 15, citing its "large-scale repression of the democratic opposition," and U.S. officials suggested he would reverse it if Burma took strides to ease political repression.

The new administration has made an intensive effort to reach out to repressive governments with a long history of human rights abuses in an attempt to shift what officials consider stalemated policies. A brutal military junta that has orchestrated gang rape of ethnic minorities, crushed democracy efforts, and kept most of the nation's revenue from natural gas, gems and other natural resources rules Burma.

State Department officials are also firmly convinced that the Burmese government is undergoing a wrenching internal debate over what to do about Suu Kyi, whose party, the National League for Democracy, won a landslide electoral victory in 1990 that the military leadership refused to accept. Since then, she has been under house arrest for most of the time, as have hundreds of her supporters.

In May, just days before Suu Kyi's six-year term under house arrest was to expire, the government put her on trial for an incident involving a U.S. citizen who swam across Rangoon's Lake Inya to reach Suu Kyi's lakefront bungalow.

Clinton's statement appeared intended to sharpen the choice for the Burmese government, but Suu Kyi's attorneys reported Wednesday that they have been denied a request to meet with her one more time before Friday's final court hearing.

The secretary, in an interview with National Public Radio on Wednesday, attributed the many delays in the trial to internal angst among the junta. But other U.S. officials think the trial was postponed to avoid a confrontation at the security conference held by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

After Clinton's remarks, a senior State Department official said the administration has privately presented Burma with "ideas about how to begin a process of dialogue and engagement that begins with Aung San Suu Kyi," including letting her "participate in the politics" of a planned 2010 election. The United States is also seeking the release of other political prisoners, he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "This is worth a shot," the official said. "We are not naive about this, and there is an understanding there is a good chance that the junta will say, 'No, thank you.' "

U.S. officials reiterated Clinton's offer in a private meeting with Burmese officials Wednesday night.

In two public appearances Wednesday, Clinton also sharpened her concern, first expressed Tuesday, about "the transfer of nuclear technology" from North Korea to Burma. "We have been very clear in stating that the United States would like to see changes in the behavior of the regime in Burma," she said.

Despite the U.S. investment ban, countries such as India, Thailand, South Korea, Singapore and China have poured money into investments to exploit Burma's natural resources. At least 69 Chinese multinational corporations are involved in 90 hydropower, mining, and oil and natural gas projects in Burma, according to a 2008 report by the group EarthRights International.

Before flying to this resort island for the ASEAN forum, Clinton told Thai television in Bangkok that the organization should consider expelling Burma from the 10-nation group if the military junta does not release Suu Kyi. But later in the day she backpedaled, saying that such a decision is up to ASEAN.

To solidify relationships with the ASEAN countries, Clinton signed a nonbinding nonaggression pact that China -- a major economic competitor with the United States in the region -- signed six years ago. But she also said the United States would become the first non-ASEAN country to open an ambassador-level diplomatic post with the group.

Clinton played down comments she had made earlier Wednesday, to Thai television, suggesting the United States would provide a "defense umbrella" for Persian Gulf allies if Iran acquired a nuclear bomb. She said she had indicated no new policy.

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