Burma could see lifting of sanctions for political reform
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered Burma the first rewards for reform on Thursday, saying the US would back more aid for the reclusive country and consider returning an ambassador after an absence of some two decades.
Clinton said she had “candid, productive” conversations with President Thein Sein and other Burmese ministers, and told them Washington stood ready to support further reforms and possibly lift sanctions, as the country seeks to emerge from decades of authoritarian military rule.
But she also urged Burma to take further steps to release political prisoners and end ethnic conflicts and said better US ties would be impossible unless Burma halts its illicit dealings with North Korea, which has repeatedly set alarm bells ringing across Asia with its renegade nuclear programme.
“The president told me he hopes to build on these steps and I assured him that these reforms have our support,” Clinton told a news conference after her talks in Burma’s remote capital, Naypyitaw.
“I also made clear that, while the measures already taken may be unprecedented and welcomed, they are just the beginning.”
Clinton’s landmark visit to the country marks a tentative rapprochement after more than 50 years of estrangement from the West.
She will travel on Thursday to the commercial capital of Yangon where she will hold the first of two meetings with veteran pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Following meetings with Thein Sein and other officials in Naypyitaw, Clinton unveiled several incremental steps to improve ties and said the US would consider returning an ambassador to the country.
The US downgraded its representation in Burma to a charge d’affaires in response to the military’s brutal 1988 crackdown on pro-democracy protests and voiding of 1990 elections widely judged to have been won by Suu Kyi’s party.
“This could become an important channel to air concerns, monitor and support progress, and build trust,” Clinton said. “These are beginning steps and we are prepared to go further if reforms maintain momentum.”
The US would consider easing sanctions if it saw concrete reforms, she said.
“I told the leadership we will certainly consider the easing and elimination of sanctions as we go forward in this process together ... It has to be not theoretical or rhetorical, it has to be very real, on the ground, that can be evaluated.”
Clinton also said the US would support new World Bank and International Monetary Fund assessment missions to help Burma jump start its feeble economy and new UN counter-narcotics and health cooperation programs.
Seeking to pull Burma more closely into a region increasingly united by its wariness over regional heavyweight China, Clinton invited Burma to become an observer to the Lower Mekong Initiative, a US-backed grouping aimed at discussing the future of Southeast Asia’s major waterway.
But she dismissed any suggestion that engagement with Burma was driven by competition with China.
Putting aside differences
“We are not about opposing any other country. We’re about supporting this country,” she said, adding that the US regularly consulted China on its engagement in Asia, including Burma.
Clinton also said the US and Burma would discuss a joint effort to recover the remains of Americans killed during the building of the “Burma Road” during World War Two—echoing steps taken with Vietnam as Washington and Hanoi sought to put their differences behind them.
Rights groups and some lawmakers in the US Congress have been concerned that Washington may be moving too swiftly to endorse the new leadership and Clinton made clear that the US needed to see more progress.
“It is encouraging that political prisoners have been released but over 1 000 are still not free,” Clinton said.
“Let me say publicly what I said privately earlier today [Thursday]: no person in any country should be detained for exercising universal freedoms of expression, assembly and conscience.”
Renegade nuclear programme
A US official who sat in on the talks cited Thein Sein as saying the government considered the release of such prisoners “part of the effort of having an inclusive political process” and it was looking at the possibility of more releases.
Clinton also said it would “be difficult to begin a new chapter” until Burma began forging peace with ethnic minority rebels and started allowing humanitarian groups, human rights monitors and journalists into conflict areas.
Underscoring a key US diplomatic objective, Clinton pressed Burma to halt what US officials say are illicit contacts with North Korea, including trade in missile technology, and to honour UN sanctions imposed on Pyongyang because of its renegade nuclear programme.
“Better relations with the US will only be possible if the entire government respects the international consensus against the spread of nuclear weapons,” she said. “We look to Naypyitaw to honour UN Security Council Resolutions 1718 and 1874 and sever illicit ties with North Korea.”
Clinton said she received “strong assurances” regarding Burma’s commitments to UN Security Council resolutions on North Korea and its obligations on non-proliferation. US officials have played down fear Burma’s ties with North Korea had broadened to include a nuclear programme.
Suu Kyi backs US engagement
Suu Kyi said on Wednesday she fully backed Washington’s effort to gauge Burma’s reforms since the military nominally gave up power to civilian leaders following elections last year.
“I think we have to be prepared to take risk. Nothing is guaranteed,” Suu Kyi told reporters in Washington in a public video call from her home in Yangon, where she was held in detention for 15 of the last 21 years before being released in November last year.
But Suu Kyi—a Nobel peace laureate and towering figure for Burma’s embattled democracy movement—said the US must remain watchful that the army-backed government did not halt or roll back reforms and “speak out loud and clear” if people engaging in politics were arrested.
Suu Kyi confirmed she would run in upcoming by-elections, ending a boycott of Burma’s political system.
Clinton’s trip follows a decision by President Barack Obama last month to open the door to expanded ties, saying he saw “flickers of progress”. Clinton said it was up to Burma’s leaders to decide what came next.
“We know from history that flickers can die out. They can be stamped out,” Clinton said, adding it was up to Burma’s leaders to decide what comes next.—Reuters