By Dan Robinson
President Barack Obama announced on Friday a major new diplomatic initiative responding to positive changes in Burma, saying he is sending Secretary of State Hillary Clinton there next month.
Just hours before he attended the annual U.S. – ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) summit in Bali ahead of the East Asia leaders summit, Mr. Obama came to the microphones to announce the major initiative.
While flying to Bali on Air Force One, he said he had spoken with Burmese opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi – the first conversation they have had.
Mr. Obama said they reviewed progress in Burma, where the government — though still heavily influenced by the military — has begun opening the country and loosening restrictions.
He said next month Secretary Clinton will go to Rangoon and Naypyidaw, the new capital constructed by Burma’s military, for discussions to explore possible further progress in relations between the two countries.
“Today I have asked Secretary Hillary Clinton to go to Burma. She will be the first American secretary of state to travel to the country in over half a century, and she will explore whether the United States can empower a positive transition in Burma, and begin a new chapter between our countries,” he said.
Mr. Obama said Americans have been deeply concerned for decades about the denial of basic human rights for the Burmese people, including persecution of democracy reformers, brutality toward ethnic minorities, and concentration of power in military leaders.
Referring to what he called “flickers of progress” in Burma after “years of darkness,” he pointed to steps taken by Burma’s President Thein Sein and parliament to begin a dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi, release some political prisoners, relax media restrictions, and open the political environment.
Mr. Obama called these measures the most important steps toward reform in Burma seen in years. But he said more needs to be done.
“We remain concerned about Burma’s closed political system, its treatment of minorities, and holding of political prisoners and its relationship with North Korea. But we want to seize what could be a historic opportunity for progress and make it clear that if Burma continues to travel down the road of democratic reform it can forge a new relationship with the United States of America,” he said.
In his conversation with Aung San Suu Kyi, Mr. Obama said she confirmed that she supports U.S. engagement to help move the reform process forward. Mr. Obama says Burma’s government could deliver a positive signal to Secretary Clinton.
“If Burma fails to move down the path of reform it will continue to face sanctions and isolation. But if it seizes this moment, then reconciliation can prevail and millions of people may get the chance to live with a greater measure of freedom, prosperity and dignity, and that possibility is too important to ignore,” he said.
Mr. Obama said he would reinforce these messages on Friday in the U.S. – ASEAN meeting, attended by Burma’s president, and that Secretary Clinton would deliver the same messages when she visits Burma next month.
A senior administration official noted that any discussions Mr. Obama has with the Burmese president would not technically be described as a bilateral meeting.
President Obama said the U.S. decided to respond to positive developments in Burma and clearly demonstrate America’s commitment to the future of an “extraordinary country, a courageous people, and universal values.”
The Obama administration has pursued a policy of engagement and pressure with Burma. U.S. sanctions imposed in 1997 remain in effect, though Burma’s government has called on Washington to end them.
Aung San Suu Kyi was freed from house arrest last year, during Mr. Obama’s last major trip in Asia.