Clinton Returns to Asia Without New Policy
Clinton Returns to Asia Without New Policy
Clarity on U.S. Stance Toward Burma Was Expected at Regional Meeting
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 18, 2009
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton arrives in Mumbai. She will attend meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations next week. (Associated Press)
MUMBAI, July 17 — Nearly six months after announcing a high-profile review of U.S. policy to Burma during a trip to Indonesia, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is returning to Asia without a new policy.
Clinton will attend a gathering of Southeast Asian foreign ministers in Phuket, Thailand, including the Burmese foreign minister, and many experts had expected the Obama administration to make clear its intentions at the gathering. But U.S. officials said the review was put on hold pending the outcome of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s trial that began in May — and the military junta that rules Burma has repeatedly delayed the court proceedings, apparently with an aim of pushing it past the annual gathering of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
U.S. officials are holding out hope that the court will release Suu Kyi, opening up the possibility of dialogue. But the result has been that the United States has been largely silent on Burma, even as the government launched a military offensive against the Karen ethnic group that has spilled over the border into neighboring Thailand, with thousands of refugees fleeing the fighting as an estimated 3,300 villages were burned.
Clinton arrived here Friday on the first leg of a week-long tour of India and Thailand but did not talk to reporters during her 16-hour journey. She will attend the ASEAN meetings on Wednesday and Thursday.
Burma, also known as Myanmar, is regarded as one of the world’s most oppressive nations, run by generals who have enriched themselves while much of the country remains desperately poor. The National League for Democracy, Suu Kyi’s party, won a landslide electoral victory in 1990, but the military leadership refused to accept it. Since then, she has been under house arrest for most of the time, as have hundreds of her supporters.
Sean Turnell, an associate professor at Macquarie University in Australia and a specialist on Burma’s economy, estimates that the government has reserves of about $5 billion, largely from natural gas fields that bring in about $2 billion a year.
“The financial position of the regime is very strong,” he said, even as it has pleaded poverty with international donors. “It is extraordinary they are allowed to get away with it.”
In May, just days before Suu Kyi’s six-year term under house arrest was due to expire, the government put her on trial for an incident involving a U.S. citizen who swam across Rangoon’s picturesque Lake Inya to reach Suu Kyi’s lakefront bungalow and allegedly stayed there one or two nights. Suu Kyi was taken to Rangoon’s notorious Insein Prison on charges of violating the terms of her detention by hosting a foreigner, which could bring a three- to five-year prison term, according to Burmese opposition officials. Suu Kyi, 63, is said to be in poor health and has recently been treated for dehydration and low blood pressure.
When U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon visited Burma this month, the government rejected his request to meet with Suu Kyi.
Indeed, few experts think the junta will show leniency toward Suu Kyi as it is preparing for elections in 2010 to solidify its rule. The government had revived a lawsuit seeking to take away her home at the time the American intruder presented another opportunity to put her in jail. Before the new charges were lodged, the National League for Democracy had issued a statement saying it would consider participating in the election but only if Suu Kyi was freed, the constitution was amended and the elections were free and fair.
When Clinton announced the policy review in February, she indicated that she thought years of tough sanctions on Burma had failed to have an impact. “Clearly, the path we have taken in imposing sanctions hasn’t influenced the Burmese junta,” she said during a news conference in Jakarta during her first overseas trip as secretary of state, adding that the route taken by Burma’s neighbors of “reaching out and trying to engage them has not influenced them, either.”
But U.S. officials say the emerging policy review does not envision major changes in the U.S. approach, though it had not yet been reviewed by senior officials when Suu Kyi’s trial began. Under the new policy, meetings would have been authorized between Burmese and U.S. officials at the deputy assistant secretary of state level, but sanctions would have been maintained and humanitarian assistance would continue.
“The outcome of the trial will affect the policy review,” said a senior administration official speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was discussing internal deliberations. “The Burmese have indicated some interest in improving relations with us. If the outcome is bad, it makes it harder.”
With the policy review uncompleted and U.S. attention focused mostly on Suu Kyi, diplomatic activity has continued without the forceful intervention of the United States. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called for new financial sanctions against Burma and the European Union issued a tough statement calling for Burma to halt the military offensive against the Karen.
At the United Nations, the U.S. focus on Suu Kyi’s trial — and failure to speak out against the military offensive when it started — has played into the hands of Russia and China, which have long bridled at the Bush administration’s success in getting Burma on the Security Council agenda. Chinese ambassador Liu Zhenmin said that the Security Council cannot be about one individual, no matter how iconic. “The situation in Myanmar poses no threat to international or regional peace or security,” he said, referring to the key factors that put a country on the Security Council docket.
Scot Marciel, deputy assistant secretary of state for Asia, rejected the idea that the administration has been hampered by the uncompleted review. “We’re not left empty-handed or frozen, if you will, by the fact that the review is not completed,” he said. “We have been extremely active diplomatically on Burma policy.”
But Michael Green, top Asia adviser in the George W. Bush White House, said the Obama administration “is stuck in a sense” because it has so hinged the policy review on Suu Kyi’s trial. Green said Southeast Asia is waiting for an answer from Clinton because her comments in Jakarta left the impression that the United States might lift sanctions. “She is going to have to lay down some clear signals and clear principles” in Thailand, he said.