RANGOON — In her latest memoir, former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton describes her cherished personal relationship with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and Washington’s evolving ties with Burma, calling the United States’ re-engagement with the former pariah state an example of “America at our best.”
In “Hard Choices,” a 656-page tome in which Clinton recalls her visits to countries around the world, an entire chapter is devoted to Burma, the only Asia-Pacific nation other than China to be afforded such prominence. Clinton charts a path in the chapter from nearly nonexistent diplomatic ties with Burma under the former military regime to US President Barack Obama’s historic visit to Rangoon in 2012, and up through this April’s controversial national census.
Clinton, who shepherded one of the 21st century’s most dramatic and rapid reversals in bilateral relations as the United States’ chief diplomat from 2009-2013, describes Burma’s political reform process in largely positive terms, but notes that many reforms remain incomplete.
“It is sometimes hard to resist getting breathless about Burma,” she writes. “But we have to remain clear-eyed and levelheaded about the challenges and difficulties that lie ahead.”
A reappraisal of US foreign policy toward Burma came shortly after Obama took office in 2009, well before the installation of Burma’s nominally civilian government in 2011 and less than two years after the former ruling junta cracked down lethally on Buddhist monk-led protests in Rangoon.
“I came into office convinced that we needed to rethink our Burma policy,” Clinton writes, reflecting on more than 20 years of economic sanctions imposed by the United States.
Clinton’s tentative steps toward normalizing relations in 2009 included visits to Burma by a US lawmaker and a senior State Department envoy, discussions with other Asian leaders, and ultimately the announcement of a new US orientation on the world’s biggest diplomatic stage, the United Nations headquarters in New York.
“We had concluded that ‘engagement versus sanctions is a false choice.’ So going forward, we would use both tools to pursue our goals and reach out directly to senior Burmese officials,” she writes.
Those goals included the release of political prisoners, including Suu Kyi, then under house arrest, and an end to ties with North Korea, as well as efforts at reconciliation with opposition groups.
By November 2011—despite many of these conditions not yet having been met—Clinton was on a plane to Naypyidaw to meet with Burmese President Thein Sein and ruling party lawmakers. She describes taking a stroll days later with Suu Kyi, released from house arrest one year earlier, at the opposition leader’s lakeside home in Rangoon.
Less than one year after that, Obama too paid a visit to Thein Sein and Suu Kyi, and gave a speech at Rangoon University that stressed the importance of democratic governance and respect for human rights.
Today, with US businesses setting up operations in Burma and Obama expected to pay a visit later this year to Naypyidaw, a capital said to have been built in central Burma to protect against a US invasion by sea, the transformation from pariah to partner appears complete.
‘Carrots and Sticks’
The decision by the Obama administration to re-engage with Burma has been accompanied by heated debate among human rights advocates, geopolitical analysts and entrepreneurs keen to tap the long forbidden market.
“I wanted the United States to play a constructive role in encouraging the better instincts of the new Burmese government, without rushing to embrace them prematurely or losing the leverage our strong sanctions provided,” Clinton writes.
“There was a risk that the Burmese generals were playing us,” she adds, a nod to the concerns of many who have cautioned against US re-engagement as too much, too soon.
That is a view shared by the US Campaign for Burma, a Washington-based advocacy group that has frequently criticized US policy toward Burma.
“We’re now seeing where Clinton’s wholehearted endorsement of an incomplete reform process has landed the US—forced to reconcile and stand beside an oppressive government conducting ethnic cleansing in one corner of the country and a full-blown war complete with torture and human rights abuses in the other,” Dan McDevitt, communications coordinator at the US Campaign for Burma, told The Irrawaddy.
McDevitt said Washington had too eagerly given up leverage, such as economic sanctions, that could have been maintained to prod further reforms.
“With the arguable exception of the 2012 by-elections … no other condition on that list has been met yet,” he said, referring to benchmarks of progress set by the United States. “Political prisoners remain behind bars, journalists continue to be imprisoned, the government’s treatment of the ethnic minority Rohingya has significantly worsened, ties with North Korea remain unclear, and the conflict in Kachin State has recently intensified.”
Differing from McDevitt’s stance are those, including Clinton, who argue that deepening US engagement has been a catalyst for Burma’s move toward democracy.
Murray Hiebert, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank, offered a less critical assessment of Clinton’s Burma narrative.
“It’s a pretty good, albeit somewhat rosy summary of developments in Myanmar [Burma], the reasons the junta launched the reforms, and the thinking in Washington as the US launched its rapprochement with the country,” he told The Irrawaddy, while noting that attacks against Rohingya Muslims in 2012 occurred as the United States was ramping up engagement with the Burmese government.
“This is not to take away from the very important role the US under Obama and Clinton played in helping create space for key leaders in Myanmar to launch their reforms,” Hiebert added. “Many of the biggest challenges the so-called reformers face in completing the process have come into much sharper relief since Clinton left office in early 2013 and completed her book.”
The former secretary of state acknowledges that the changing US policy toward Burma was motivated by multiple factors, including the high-minded notion that “its millions of people deserved a chance to enjoy the blessings of freedom and prosperity” and the more pragmatic “outsized strategic implications.”
“Burma was situated at the heart of Southeast Asia, a region where the United States and China were both working to increase influence,” she writes, noting Burma’s role in Washington’s so-called “pivot” to Asia, a policy of deepening engagement in the Asia Pacific that has been a hallmark of the Obama administration’s foreign policy.
Notably, Clinton makes no mention of Suu Kyi’s inability to become president under the Burma’s current Constitution, despite the former secretary of state’s apparent fondness for the opposition leader.
Suu Kyi’s hopes of one day serving as president took a hit last month, when a parliamentary committee charged with reviewing the Constitution voted against recommending amendments to a provision that bars anyone whose spouse or children are foreign nationals from assuming the office. Suu Kyi’s late husband and her two sons are British.
At least one US official has come out unequivocally in favor of changing that clause, Article 59. US Ambassador to Burma Derek Mitchell early this year called the provision “a relic of the past,” and less explicitly, the State Department said last month that it “believe[s] constitutional reform should pave the way for the Burmese to freely choose their president in a free and fair 2015 election.”
McDevitt called Clinton’s failure to reference Article 59 a “glaring omission.”
The Office of Hillary Clinton did not respond to attempts for clarification on whether the former secretary of state considers Suu Kyi’s presidential ineligibility to be a concern ahead of Burma’s elections next year.
Clinton is seen as a likely frontrunner in the United States’ own presidential election in 2016, though she has not revealed whether she will run for the post. Her memoir has been widely described by reviewers as a legacy-building exercise from a woman who is at least not ruling out the possibility of a presidential run.
Given that her time as secretary of state included the tumult of the Arab Spring and little progress on the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict or a bellicose North Korea, Burma is seen by some as one of few potential foreign policy victories that she might claim. McDevitt says that as a result, Clinton’s analysis in the chapter, titled “Burma: The Lady and the Generals,” amounts to “policy salvaging.”
“If things go badly in Myanmar over the period before the US elections in 2016, Clinton may well be blamed,” said David Steinberg, a Burma specialist and professor at Georgetown University in Washington, adding that he found her Burma appraisal “disappointing.”
“There are no real discussions in this chapter of any nuance of US relations or Burmese history. … If people quote this as an understanding of Myanmar or current issues or relations, they are doing the country a disservice,” he said.