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Clinton’s Historic Trip to Burma Highlights Need for Continued Sanctions

By Burma Partnership  •  December 5, 2011

At the beginning of her historical visit to Burma last Wednesday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “I came to assess whether the time is right for a new chapter in our shared history.” After a 3-day visit to the country, it seems like the US hopes to use a policy of deeper engagement with Burma as a way to bring more reforms and ensure that the “flickers of change” that President Obama mentioned are fanned “into flames of freedom that light the path toward a better future.” This strategy seems to be shared by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who told Clinton, “If we go forward together, I’m confident there will be no turning back from the road to democracy. We are not on that road yet, but we hope to get there as soon as possible with our friends.”

In her press conference when leaving the country, Secretary Clinton said that the regime must do more for the US to start the new chapter of the two countries’ history. “Better relations with the United States will only be possible if the entire government respects the international consensus against the spread of nuclear weapons,” and, secondly, if the country continues moving along the path of reform, said Secretary Clinton. “That is a path that would require releasing all political prisoners; halting hostilities in ethnic areas and seeking a true political settlement; broadening the space for political and civic activity; fully implementing legislation protecting universal freedoms of assembly, speech, and association.” In response to the important question asked by many this week, Clinton stated, “We’re not at the point yet that we can consider lifting sanctions that we have in place because of our ongoing concerns about policies that have to be reversed.” This was in line with Daw Suu’s position, who reaffirmed just a few days before Clinton’s visit that she had not changed her position supporting sanctions against the regime.

Secretary Clinton did however backtrack on the US’s support for a UN-led Commission of Inquiry into crimes against humanity and war crimes, stating that, “We hope that there will be an internal mechanism accountability. For example, the establishment of a human rights commission is an important first step, and the government has taken that first step.” Both sides failed to address that impunity is still rampant and that it is a necessary step towards national reconciliation. The recent creation of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has been nothing more than an empty gesture aimed at seducing the international community. As Tomàs Ojea Quintana said this week in an interview to the Irrawaddy about the new NHRC, “the problem of its lack of independence, if not addressed, might compromise its future performance.” The NHRC was not established according to the UN principles on independence and autonomy, and many of its members are retired ambassadors and regime officials who for years denied the country’s abysmal human rights record. Both of these give little hope that the commission will ever be able to independently investigate human rights abuses in Burma.

Several pieces of interesting information about the inner workings of the regime also came out during Clinton’s visit. The US identified the strong desire expressed by the regime that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi would run for parliament in the upcoming by-elections, supporting previous criticisms that they want to use her participation to legitimize the government. Moreover, while some Burma watchers already mentioned the idea that there were divisions within the regime between “soft-liners” and “hard-liners”, the US confirmed that there are actually three factions: “There is a group that is supportive of reform […], there is a group that is opposed to reform and […] some of those individuals hold key positions, and there is a substantial group of what we might describe as fence-sitters.”

The motivation for Secretary Clinton’s visit was quite clearly in relation to the US’s interest in countering China’s growing influence in the region. Strategy shared by the regime in a leaked US diplomatic cable from April 2009 reveals that the top generals wanted an “escape strategy” and to not be seen as China’s satellite state. In the past few months, we have seen the regime trying to play up its strategic geopolitical position, pitting its neighbours against one another. Days before Clinton’s visit to Burma, the country’s military leader, General Min Aung Hlaing, travelled to Beijing to meet with Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping. The leaders pledged to “strengthen military exchanges and cooperation to safeguard peace and stability.” This can be interpreted as Burma was giving assurances to its old ally before Clinton’s visit. In the same vein, members of Burma’s Parliament and other officials will be visiting India next week, showing the importance of maintaining a strong relationship with the largest democracy in the world.

The United States is undeniably at the beginning of a new chapter in its relationship with Burma, and while its discourse seems very cautious for the time being, it must maintain its strong position. The US will only be able to encourage further progress towards democracy, national reconciliation and an end to human rights violations by firmly holding onto the one thing that the regime desperately wants: the lifting of sanctions. Sanctions are a crucial bargaining chip that the US must use well to press for the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners, an end to the armed conflict and human rights abuses in ethnic nationality areas, and continued steps towards genuine peace and national reconciliation.

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