PUSAN, South Korea — When Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived in Burma on Wednesday for the first visit by a U.S. secretary of state in half a century, she entered a country vacillating between pessimism and hope.
Its authoritarian government is talking loudly of reform. Its opposition leaders are desperate for change but deeply suspicious of the government’s overtures. Meanwhile, its ethnic minorities, who have suffered killings and rape by the Burmese military, are split between fighting back and pursuing another cease-fire when past ones have failed.
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.”
What the government wants most, however, is a lifting of international sanctions, which — along with corruption and lagging development — have devastated the economy of Burma, also known as Myanmar.
U.S. officials have insisted that a lifting of sanctions is far in the future, noting that such a move would require much greater reform and, for some sanctions, congressional approval. But Nay Zin Latt said many in Burma’s government believe they are just months away from wresting that promise from the United States.
“They have said that if we take one step, they will move forward one step,” he said. “The changes are now happening so fast. I would say by the first quarter of next year we should start seeing the lifting of the smaller sanctions.”
Some of the more cynical activists in Burma, however, see more sinister reasons for the reforms. Some within the opposition movement, for example, have quietly questioned Suu Kyi’s decision to end her long boycott of the political system and register her National League for Democracy party in elections next year — a move they say could lend still-unearned legitimacy to the government.
Many recall her party’s decisive victory in the 1990 general election, which prompted the ruling military junta to bar the party from power and keep her under house arrest for most of the next two decades.
“The worry among some is that the government is trying to contain Aung San Suu Kyi and weaken her power by convincing her to come back into the political system. But once she is in, U Thein Sein may stop cooperation with her, and everything might turn back to square one,” said Aung Din, a former student activist and founder of the U.S. Campaign for Burma.
“It’s become a gamble for everyone involved,” said Tom Malinowski, Washington director for Human Rights Watch. “You now have three people staking their credibility on continued progress — Thein Sein, Aung San Suu Kyi and Clinton. But that’s probably a good thing. The more each side has to lose, the higher possibility this may actually lead to progress.”
But the real test of reform is still to come.
The government has yet to address the opposition’s two biggest demands: the release of all political prisoners and an end to its brutal war against ethnic minorities in outlying regions.
Since October, Burma has released 200 political prisoners, but activists say that as many as 1,600remain imprisoned, including some of the most prominent opposition leaders.
Nay Zin Latt blamed the decision not to release more on a recent peaceful protest by monks in Mandalay. “Only if the president believes there is stability, then he will release the rest of the political prisoners,” he said.
Similarly, he dismissed criticism of the military’s long-running violence against ethnic minorities.
“I would say that no hand is clean. Our soldiers have been killed, too,” the presidential adviser said, calling accusations that scores of women have been raped “an exaggeration.”
Rape, women’s advocates say, is being used as a weapon of war to control villages opposing Naypyidaw’s government.
“It is widespread, systematic and clearly supported by the government, since no one is punished. It is even carried out by high-ranking military officers in front of their soldiers,” said Charm Tong of the Shan Women’s Action Network.
Her group, which runs safe houses and offers counseling for women along the Burma-Thailand border, has seen women whose sexual organs were purportedly burned by soldiers and has found cases in which women are used by soldiers for forced labor by day and kept as sex slaves at night — issues that the network and other activists plan to bring up with Clinton during her visit.
Of the reforms, Charm Tong said: “Yes, some things are changing in some areas, but for us, it doesn’t matter what the regime says or does to please the international community. As long as atrocities like this continue, it is proving to be the same government it has always been.”