Tensions in the South China Sea, China’s currency, American troops in Australia and opening markets have all been significant news stories over the course of the APEC, ASEAN and EAS meetings. Amidst these events one evolving story could have a unique impact on bilateral and multilateral relations in the Asia-Pacific. Over the weekend in Bali, US President Barack Obama announced that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would travel to Burma. Set for the first week of December, Clinton’s trip will be the first visit by a US Secretary of State in 50 years. The recent announcements in favor of engagement with Burma led to a flurry of events and discussions which will hopefully ultimately signal a more open and peaceful Burma.
Since becoming the first civilian president of Burma in fifty years in March 2011, President Thein Sein steadily proceeded with national democratic reforms and attempted to gain greater legitimacy among members of the international community. The current leadership of Burma (now Myanmar) understands the importance of domestic and international legitimacy, especially given the events of the Arab Spring and global Occupy movements. By releasing Aung San Suu Kyi from home detention, allowing the National League for Democracy to participate in elections, releasing hundreds of political prisoners, attempting peace with ethnic groups and seeking to host ASEAN in 2014, the Burmese government has garnered potential conditional support of the US government, United Nations and ASEAN members. President Thein Sein was seen smiling and answering to reporters over the weekend, a sign he’s getting the hang of being less guarded and more open.
It is possible that President Thein Sein and his government’s recent concessions including halting work on an unpopular dam and passing a law that enables workers the right to strike were pursued to maintain power and prevent massive civil unrest. The situation in Burma, including the human rights abuses that occurred, failed to reach the agenda of the UN Security Council due to China’s veto and its respect for state sovereignty. Now, however, times are changing and UN leader Ban Ki-Moon welcomed “just as ASEAN did, the recent developments in the country under the leadership of President Thein Sein”. Given the “flickers of progress” in Burma the goal of Secretary Clinton’s trip will be “to test what the true intentions are, and whether there is a commitment to both economic and political reform”.
Developing a more hospitable domestic environment and international relations will be critical to improving human development indicators, lifting Burmese out of poverty and creating a safer East Asia. At one point Burma’s isolationism was akin to North Korea’s, and there were even worries about sales or transfers of weapons and what that might mean for the region. As a former ‘problem’ child for ASEAN, Burma appears to be shedding its incessant cling to Chinese leadership and influence; now that President Thein Sein and the government has been given a confidence boost, the next few months should provide a useful path for improvement; in particular the international community will closely watch the December by-elections and the role that the NLD is able to play.