The letter from President Obama, that Hillary Clinton handed to Aung San Suu Kyi this week, carried a clear and powerful message: “we stand by you now and always.” And on this occasion, the actions have backed up the words.
Clinton’s visit to Burma, the first by a US Secretary of State since the military took power in 1962, was a commendable diplomatic success; finding the fine line between legitimising the nominally-civilian government of President Thein Sein on the one hand, and dismissing the genuine signs of liberalisation that it has made on the other.
Whilst calling for the release of political prisoners and an end to hostilities against ethnic minority groups -stating in no uncertain terms that until further progress has been made, sanctions will not be lifted- she simultaneously rewarded the government for its tentative progress.
By raising the potential of full diplomatic relations, announcing that the US will no longer block cooperation between Burma and the International Monetary Fund, and committing to increased development assistance, Clinton effectively empowered the reformist elements of the government and potentially pushed hard-liners further into the political shadows.
Then came the Pièce de résistance: two meetings with Aung San Suu Kyi in Rangoon. To activists who spent years campaigning for Suu Kyi’s release this was an historic moment: not so long ago her freedom seemed a distant goal, yet now, poised to re-enter electoral politics, she is playing host to the the Secretary of State on Burmese soil. It is little wonder that the National League for Democracy Leader had been so supportive of the visit, but her joy at the meeting was clearly outstripped by Clinton, who expressed her unbridled admiration for Suu Kyi, and gave assurances of the US government’s full support.
At such a critical time for Burma, these signals are exactly what is needed and can only provide impetus to the improvements already emerging.
Of course, as was inevitable, talk of realpolitik surrounded this admirable support for Burmese democracy. With China’s influence in the country already shaken by the cancellation, at the behest of local activists, of a Chinese damning project in September, some analysts viewed Clinton’s venture as an attempt by the US to undermine its rival further still. Yet despite confusing signals from Beijing, with formal support for the visit offset by critical editorials in state-run papers, there is currently no real evidence to back up fears that the US is looking to use Burma a geopolitical pawn.
A far larger and more concerning undermining factor in the struggle for reform, is the on-going abuse of ethnic minority groups: one area in which no progress has been made, with the situation in may states actively worsening. This week Karen activist Zoya Phan highlighted that the number of civilians internally displaced by the government’s war crimes has in fact doubled over the last year, whilst the Guardian shone a light on the long-running and barbaric persecution of the Rohingya people, continuing today with little international opposition.
In Kachin state too, despite peace talks between the government and resistance fighters, military assaults and human rights violations take place on a daily basis.
For these reasons, combined with the prospect of real change, international support for the Burmese people now needs to be stronger and louder than ever before. If this weeks engagement by the USA is anything to go by- we have cause to be optimistic.