BURMA’S DICTATORSHIP, for decades one of the world’s most repressive, has recently scored major victories in its striving for international acceptance. Its Southeast Asian neighbors last week agreed to let Burma chair their regional association in 2014. Next week President Obama will send his secretary of state on an official visit, the highest-level U.S. mission there in Mr. Obama’s lifetime.
What have the generals and former generals who run Burma done to earn such validation? Not created a peaceable democracy, that is for sure. As a resolution just approved by the U.N. General Assembly makes clear, Burma’s army continues to wage war against ethnic minorities — targeting civilians, raping women as a deliberate policy, conscripting child soldiers and promoting the “systematic forced displacement of large numbers of persons within their country.”
Meanwhile, the regime engages in “ongoing systematic violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms . . . arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance, rape and other forms of sexual violence, torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”
Please note: All of this is in the present tense.
The regime holds well over 1,000 prisoners of conscience, by conservative reckoning. Among them are Min Ko Naing, a leader of the peaceful 1988 student movement for democracy who has spent 20 of the past 23 years in prison, and U Gambira, a monk who helped lead the 2007 democracy movement, which, like the 1988 movement, was suppressed brutally. U Gambira is said by relatives and other prisoners to have been tortured so brutally and systematically that his physical and mental health are in danger.
In the past few months, though, there have been encouraging signs of change. A dam project that many people bitterly opposed was suspended, a rare win for civil society. Control over the Internet has been eased. About 200 political prisoners were set free, and more may be released before next week’s visit by Hillary Rodham Clinton. Rules are being changed so that former prisoners, including democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, can take part in politics.
Mr. Obama has decided that those “flickers of progress,” as he called them, justify the dispatch of Ms. Clinton, part of his ballyhooed pivot to Asia. The hope is that her visit will bolster the ostensible reformers in the regime and weaken the ostensible hard-liners — though, in truth, outsiders’ understanding of regime dynamics is limited.
The risk is that the United States is giving too much, too soon. It’s not encouraging that Burma’s leading “reformer,” President Thein Sein, just announced that, in his view, the number of prisoners of conscience in Burma is zero. The All Burma Monks’ Alliance, which enjoys considerable moral authority, on Monday said Aung San Suu Kyi should not join the political process because so far “there is not much change.” All of which suggests Ms. Clinton should be measured in her favors to the regime — and mindful of what incentives she can retain in case it fails to deliver on its promise of further liberalization.