Pepperpot 1: Burma!
Pepperpot 2: Why’d you say Burma?
Pepperpot 1: I panicked.
-Monty Python’s Flying Circus
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will visit Burma, the first visit from a top-level diplomat in 50 years. The move reflects the increased liberalization of the country, which has been under a military junta for decades.
Mr Obama spoke to democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi before deciding to send Mrs Clinton – the first secretary of state to visit in 50 years.
Ms Suu Kyi’s movement is also expected to announce later that it will lift its boycott on taking part in elections.
Burma was ruled by a brutal military junta for decades, but the generals ceded power last year after elections that they tightly controlled.
The new government, which is still led by former junta members, has undertaken important reforms.
Crucially, President Thein Sein has held a number of meetings with Ms Suu Kyi, who was previously held under house arrest.
The President thought enough of this engagement to make an official statement from Bali, Indonesia, the last stop on his Pacific trip. He stressed that this was coming about because of the “flickers of progress” that have emanated from Burma – and he called it Burma, not Myanmar – over the past several weeks. The release of political prisoners, an end to the marginalization of Aung Sun Suu Kyi and a reregistration of her political party, easing of media restrictions, a new labor organization law, and other steps toward democratic reform have led to this moment. Suu Kyi supported the visit by Clinton. He planned to take up the issue with President Thein Shein at the ASEAN summit over the weekend. There’s an allusion to the fact that Clinton will meet with Suu Kyi in Burma, in addition to government leaders.
Senior Administration officials stressed that months of engagement led to the Clinton visit. And that’s basically how diplomacy is supposed to go. I know that the traditional media has been ticking off “foreign policy successes” of the Obama Administration, and counting in them the assassination of American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, or the war in Libya. But this is an actual foreign policy success. Getting Burma out of the cold would mean that millions of Burmese citizens will be able to live with a modicum of freedom and dignity. The reconciliation process is moving forward there, and deploying smart power – the initial premise of the Clinton State Department – to support those efforts, not with sticks but carrots, not with bombs but words, should be the model going forward.
There’s no real cause for celebration yet, but this is very hopeful.