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Obama's easing of Myanmar stance stemmed from sanctions' failure

November 18, 2011 |  5:35 am

Myanmar democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi in Yangon on Friday
REPORTING FROM BALI, INDONESIA –- Soon after taking office, President Obama ordered a review of U.S. policy toward the repressive government in Myanmar that reached a stark conclusion: Attempts to isolate the regime weren’t working.

Sanctions imposed by the U.S. were not forcing the regime to loosen its grip on the population, a senior Obama administration official said in an interview Friday.

So began a new approach toward Myanmar. A purely punitive strategy was discarded in favor of “testing engagement," as one White House official put it. Obama administration officials began reaching out to certain elements of the junta and opening a dialogue. On Friday, the new policy culminated in an important milestone: Obama announced that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will travel to the country next month, the first such visit in the last half century.

She’ll leave Dec. 1 for a two-day trip, during which she will prod Myanmar’s leaders to take bolder steps toward political reform.

Two developments led to the breakthrough: Fresh signs the regime was shedding its strong-arm practices and the blessing of a major opposition figure, White House officials said Friday.

Freedoms in Myanmar are still lacking. A total of 1,668 political prisoners remain in jails around the country, said Aung Khaing Min, an official with the Assistance Assn. for Political Prisoners, a Thailand-based advocacy group.

Yet the White House noted that Myanmar has released 200 political prisoners, lifted restrictions on the media, created a human rights commission and halted work on a controversial dam financed by China.

Obama, who is in Bali for summit meetings, described the moves as “flickers of progress" following “years of darkness."

Before putting American prestige on the line, though, he wanted the endorsement of a powerful symbol of Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement, Aung San Suu Kyi.

Flying from northern Australia to Bali on Thursday night, he phoned Suu Kyi and the two spoke for 20 minutes. It was their first conversation. He told her he admired her fight for democracy and human rights. Suu Kyi was held in detention for much of the last 20 years, winning her release last year.

Both said they would like to meet in person one day. As much as diplomacy reflects hard national interests, the personal dimension often creeps in.  At one point in the discussion, Suu Kyi asked Obama about the first family’s Portuguese water dog, Bo. She has a dog too, she told the president.

The call ended with Suu Kyi affirming she would welcome Clinton’s visit.

The thaw with Myanmar is rooted in a basic tenet of Obama’s foreign policy. In his inauguration speech in 2009, he made an overture toward repressive regimes, promising to “extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist."

Myanmar’s fist isn’t open yet, but its fingers are splayed enough to suit the White House.

“So what we’ve seen really across the board is a substantial set of steps that we thought indicated a seriousness of reform," said one White House official who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.  “And indeed, we think that the winds of change are blowing inside the country."

Many Myanmar exiles and dissident groups remain skeptical. In years past the leadership has held elections, tolerated political parties and rewritten constitutions. Yet democracy never took hold.

“It’s not the first time they’ve changed to suit their interests,” said Ko Pauu, a blogger living in Singapore. “But if you look close, there’s no democracy.”

Analysts said the regime’s calculation appears to be that it can control the reform process without jeopardizing its position. To this end, it boosted its image overseas and gained legitimacy last year by releasing Suu Kyi from house arrest and holding elections. What the junta wants next is to see economic sanctions eased and to gain access to International Monetary Fund loans.

The White House says it isn’t naïve about the regime’s intentions. But there are larger geopolitical calculations at work. Take China. Obama has spent much of his nine-day trip to Hawaii, Australia and Indonesia announcing military and trade agreements meant to strengthen Washington’s clout in the Asia-Pacific region. Myanmar is an ally and neighbor of China. Better ties to Myanmar fit into Obama’s larger project in the Asia-Pacific: Reworking old alliances in ways that counterbalance Beijing’s rising influence.

As to what Myanmar wants from the deal, the White House says the country may be tiring of its isolation.

One official said that in the summit meetings here, Myanmar officials are sadly behind the times, walking about with no cellphones or Blackberries.

Their leaders see they are falling “farther and farther behind," the official said.

 -- Peter Nicholas and Mark Magnier

Nicholas reported from Bali, Mangier from New Delhi.

Photo: Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi shakes hands with supporters outside the National League for Democracy head office after a meeting in Yangon on Friday. Credit: Soe Zeya Tun / Reuters