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Hillary Clinton Visits Burma; is a New Great Game Under Way?

Posted on the 02 December 2011 by Periscope @periscopepost

Hillary Clinton visits Burma; is a new Great Game under way?

Aung San Suu Kyi. Photocredit:

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has visited Burma (also known as Myanmar) – the first to do so since  John Foster Dulles in 1955. Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition politician and Nobel Peace Prize winner recently freed from house arrest, met Clinton and expressed her hopes for democracy in Burma (which was once a prosperous country, but failed when ruled by a military junta, until last year, from 1962).

A civilian parliament is now in charge, though the military is still powerful. Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, has re-registered, and she will stand for parliament in elections. She also stressed that the country was not nearly on the right track yet – it still holds many hundreds of political prisoners, and is riven by conflict. America still imposes sanctions upon the country, but will relax restrictions on financial aid, and will support development programs.

Clinton also met the President, Thein Sein, who has been pushing through reforms. She welcomed a softening of relations between America and Burma, but stressed that more needed to be done; particularly in relation to severing ties with North Korea, and in respecting the consensus about nuclear weapons. Other reforms include ceasefires with ethnic minority insurgents, more media freedom, and wider political reform. Commentators are praising the detente in relations, but viewing the process as part of a wider game that may include containing Chinese influence in the area.

“I am very confident that if we work together… there will be no turning back from the road to democracy,” said Suu Kyi after the talks, quoted on BBC News.

Meeting of minds. Kim Ghattas on the BBC News website said that Clinton and Suu Kyi had “embraced warmly,” whilst Clinton called the Burmese politician “an inspiration.”

“In each of my meetings, leaders assured me that progress would continue and broaden. And as it does, the United States will actively support those, both inside and outside of government, who genuinely seek reform,” said Hillary Clinton, in her speech, available in full on the US State Department’s website.

It’s the economy, stupid. The meeting was widely welcomed, reported Reuters, quoting Soe Nai, a shopkeeper: “It’s the economy. Myanmar’s economy is bad. If it will help, it’s good.” A taxi driver, Ohn Kyaw, was quoted too: “Please pressure the government to carry out genuine democratic reforms quickly and please give the country more assistance.”

Towards harmony. Sally Quinn in The Washington Post, who interviewed Suu Kyi briefly, raved about her, calling her “truly remrarkable”, and comparing her to Nelson Mandela. There “wasn’t a trace of anger or bitterness in her remarks.” Suu Kyi herself said that the way forward was not through bitterness, but through understanding and negotiation, to “bring harmony out of different ways of thinking.”

Is there more to it? Brian McCartan on The Asia Times was a little more cynical, reporting that the visit was as much about “counter-balancing China as about democracy and human rights.”  Though more inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency have been allowed in Burma, there’s “no sign” that Thein Sein’s government has ended its nuclear programs. The visit, though, has conferred much-longed-for respect on the international stage, which should have a “positive effect on future reform.” It’s not likely that Burma will ally itself with America over China; but it has become used to “playing bigger powers off against one another.” One of the Burmese generals, military head Min Aung Hulang, had actually been to Beijing just before Clinton arrived. Clinton’s visit is “a diplomatic gamble.” Burma must prove that it will keep current reforms in place once they’ve received aid.

Oh yes there is… And perhaps McCartan’s right – Malcolm Moore in The Daily Telegraph suggested that a new Great Game was already in place. “South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and India” are all US allies; and many other Asian countries, afraid of China, are rushing to American skirts. But Burma, once a key ally of China, is now worried. Clinton’s visit is viewed as “an attempt to surround China.” Burma’s seen by China as a “pivot”, key to its economic growth. The powers are squaring up to each other – and Burma knows it.

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