There have only been a few moments in recent memory when Burma has captured media attention as it did last week.
When United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rolled into the capital on 30 November at the start of her three-day visit, she brought with her something quite rare here: a press pack of foreign journalists. In an unprecedented step, the government had agreed to grant visas to many journalists from media organisations that it had previously railed against. The visit, the first by a US secretary of state since 1955, also came following months of reforms that have heightened expectations both at home and abroad that Burma may finally be emerging from decades of poverty, isolation and civil war.
Although it included two-and-a-half hours of "workmanlike" talks with President Thein Sein (as a US official put it), the highlight of Clinton’s trip was her meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi at the opposition leader’s home in Rangoon. She appeared genuinely emotional to meet the Nobel laureate, perhaps in part because for so long it seemed an unlikely prospect. The pair even shared dinner at the residence of the US charge d’affaires, the highest-ranking US diplomat in Burma since it downgraded the post from ambassador-level in 1990 after the government failed to honour the results of an election earlier that year.
There were several contending narratives surrounding the visit announced by Barack Obama on 18 November at the ASEAN Summit in Bali. The US was trying to encourage "flickers" of reform and to counter China’s influence in a strategically placed and resource-rich nation.
Alternatively, Clinton’s visit was part of the US’s renewed engagement with Asia, and in particular Southeast Asia.
Or perhaps the visit was about economic ties, laying the groundwork to ease sanctions and allow US businesses to invest and trade with Burma again.
And of course, it meant a photo opportunity with Aung San Suu Kyi, who commands enormous respect around the globe and particularly in the US. Should Burma make further progress, it would give a massive boost to Obama’s credibility on foreign affairs.
The real motivation was probably a combination of factors. Regardless, the vibe surrounding the talks with both the government and Aung San Suu Kyi was positive, and Clinton announced some "modest first steps" to show the US was prepared to match the government’s positive progress.
These include visits by International Monetary Fund and World Bank teams to assess the needs of reforming the economy, funding for civil society organisations and a relaxation of US restrictions on United Nations Development Program projects, such as microfinance. An upgrading of Burma to an ambassador-level post was also mooted.
There’s a common misperception that the only chip the US has to encourage reform in Burma is economic sanctions (Clinton, incidentally, said it was too soon to lift these). This overlooks the fact that, just as there were a number of reasons for Clinton’s visit, the Burmese government’s reform steps are driven by a range of factors, only some of which are economic and linked to sanctions.
You could argue that really the US doesn’t have any chips at all. What the past 20 years have taught us is that all countries looking to encourage reform in Burma need to be realistic in their aims. While the "modest" rewards offered by Clinton would have been welcomed in Rangoon and the capital Naypyidaw, they are hardly likely to sway the government’s thinking.
What is often forgotten is that Burma hasn’t really strayed from the "Seven-step Roadmap to Democracy" the military government unveiled in 2003. Six of these steps have already been completed; the last calls for the "building a modern, developed and democratic nation". The ambiguity of this has given the new Burmese government room to manoeuvre without deviating from the path outlined by the leader of the previous military government, led by the now-retired Senior General Than Shwe.
The roadmap, like the 2008 constitution and the election of November 2010, was widely criticised by most Western nations, almost from the moment it was unveiled. But historically neither disapproval nor inducements have done much to change the government’s thinking. Thankfully for the people of Burma, the roadmap brought to power a government that so far appears to be taking their interests and desires seriously and has the political will to see through reforms. That the impetus for change came from within the country — inside the military, even — has made it stable and sustainable.
The president and his ministers have also acknowledged the challenges the country faces and the steps that still have to be taken. In her discussions with Thein Sein, Clinton outlined five specific areas of greatest concern to the US: relations with North Korea; further democratisation; reconciliation with ethnic groups; release of all political prisoners; and strengthening the rule of law and further legal reform.
The most difficult of these to achieve will undoubtedly be reconciliation. However, as Clinton departed on 2 December, government negotiators and an armed group, the Shan State Army-South, agreed on a preliminary ceasefire. This was particularly significant because the SSA-S is one of just a handful of the more than 20 armed ethnic groups in Burma — which range from armies in their own right to small militias — that has never reached a truce with the government.
Those that did in the past have fared only marginally better. The previous military government concluded ceasefires with most rebel groups in the late ’80s and early ’90s but plans for more wide-ranging peace deals faltered. The then-government argued that because it was a temporary body it could not discuss political settlements with the ethnic minorities. Instead, it invited them to participate in the process of drafting the 2008 constitution.
Why might this time be different?
One significant factor is that the government actually has a plan — drafted in collaboration with civil society — to bring peace through economic development and political participation. It has appointed a liberal government minister, Aung Min, as its chief negotiator, and brought other, non-military interlocutors into the process. It also has intent: I’m told the government has set a target of agreeing preliminary ceasefire deals with all rebel groups by the end of next year.
The peace moves, which included a 19-20 November meeting on the Thai-Burma border between Aung Min and the leaders of five groups, "mark one of the most significant moments in the six decades of conflict", the International Crisis Group said in a recent report.
However, the process will be long, and these ceasefire negotiations are just the first steps toward to a permanent settlement. Significantly, fighting continues in Kachin State, in the north of the country, between government troops and the Kachin Independence Army. The KIA’s political arm, the Kachin Independence Organisation, commands fierce support from the Kachin people — more so than other ethnic political organisations — and this is only amplified during times of conflict. As one local analyst told me last week, the Kachin will be "a big hard nut to crack", with a great deal of animosity on both sides.
In her press conference before leaving Burma last week, Hillary Clinton said reconciliation remains the country’s "defining challenge". While the US will no doubt do its best to support the negotiations, it will be up to the people of Burma to find the key that can unlock long-term peace.
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