Secretary of State Hillary Clinton embarks on an historic trip to Myanmar (also known as Burma) this week – it will be the first visit by a U.S. secretary of state to the isolated country in more than 50 years.
Clinton is also scheduled to meet for the first time with Aung San Suu Kyi, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and has been a political prisoner in Myanmar for 15 of the last 22 years until she was freed last year.
President Barack Obama announced on Nov. 18 that he was sending Clinton to Myanmar saying that he had seen “flickers of progress” in the country which has been governed by military rule for half a century.
“President Thein Sein and the Burmese Parliament have taken important steps on the path toward reform,” the president said speaking from Bali, Indonesia. “A dialogue between the government and Aung San Suu Kyi has begun. The government has released some political prisoners. Media restrictions have been relaxed. And legislation has been approved that could open the political environment.” Obama also said he had spoken with Suu Kyi and confirmed that she supports American engagement in the region and that she welcomed the visit by Clinton.
Still the trip is a potential foreign policy risk. On the one hand the United States could help Myanmar usher in a new era of open government while loosening China’s influence in the region. But Myanmar still has a long way to go – it currently holds a number of political prisoners, has been heavily criticized for its treatment of minorities and its relationship with North Korea.
U.S. Senator Richard Lugar released a statement saying that Myanmar’s relationship with North Korea should be closely scrutinized. “North Korea is believed to be continuing development of its nuclear, biological and chemical weapons program…over five years ago, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was informed…of Burma’s reported intention to develop nuclear weapons in coordination with North Korea,” Lugar said. For years the United States has imposed a number of sanctions against Myanmar and there is almost no chance that this trip will lead to a loosening of those sanctions.
Clinton has said that she will press Myanmar to enact more reforms and will assess how the United States can help the country move toward democracy.
Clinton’s first stop on her trip will be in Busan, South Korea where she will attend the world’s largest forum on international aid – the fourth High Level Forum on Aid and Effectiveness. The conference will focus on finding more efficient ways to give international aid to developing nations.
Then she will head to Myanmar where she will hold talks with government officials in Myanmar’s capital of Naypyidaw on Thursday and will meet with Suu Kyi on Friday – a moment that will undoubtedly be the highlight of the trip.
Clinton – who called for Suu Kyi’s release when she was first lady – has only spoken to Suu Kyi by telephone but has never met her in person – until now.