Clinton to evaluate reforms in Burma

Thu, Dec 1, 2011, 00:00

US SECRETARY of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Burma yesterday for an historic visit that acknowledges cautious reform in the southeast Asian nation and underlines the resource-rich country’s expanding role in the Asia-Pacific region.

Ms Clinton is the highest-ranking US official in half a century to visit long-isolated Burma, which is also known as Myanmar.

“I am obviously looking to determine for myself and on behalf of our government what is the intention of the current government with respect to continuing reforms, both political and economic,” she said ahead of her arrival.

Since 1962, Burma has been run with an iron fist by a military junta, but since last year it has started to open up at a rate that has surprised many, including opposition icon and Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, 66. Last year, Burma held elections and freed Ms Suu Kyi, one of the world’s most famous democracy advocates, after years of house arrest.

The new government of President Thein Sein, a former general, has held dialogue with Ms Suu Kyi, freed hundreds of prisoners, allowed greater press freedom and passed a law allowing public protests. He has sought to convince Ms Suu Kyi’s party to take part in elections, something she has indicated might happen next year.

The Clinton visit will be the first major test of these reforms.

At the centre of this geopolitical scramble is increased tension between China and the US.

Burma seems to have been making overtures to Washington of late, something that has clearly rattled China, which does not want a resource-rich country on its borders cosying up to the US.

China stole a march on the Clinton visit this week when its vice- president Xi Jinping, who is widely tipped to take over from President Hu Jintao in 2013, met the commander-in-chief of Burma’s armed forces, Min Aung Hlaing, and called for stronger ties.

“The friendship, forged by leaders of the older generations, has endured changes in the international arena,” Mr Xi told the Xinhua news agency. “China will work with Myanmar to further bolster the comprehensive strategic partnership of co-operation,” he said.

In September, Sino-Burmese relations were rocked by Rangoon’s decision to suspend building a €2.7 billion Chinese-backed dam in the north, which would have fed electricity to China and displaced thousands of Burmese villagers.

During the visit, Ms Clinton will meet Ms Suu Kyi, as well as the the country’s leadership, ethnic minorities and democracy advocates.

Washington is unlikely to back down on sanctions that ban imports, restrict aid and freeze assets, but it may start to put the framework in place to do so.