Her trip comes as the country’s military leadership has made unprecedented reforms in recent months to allow the long-suppressed opposition to participate in the political process.
Over the next two days Clinton will meet with Myanmar’s leaders, including President Thein Sein, Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin, and members of both houses of parliament. She will also meet with the main opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who until last year had been under house arrest for two decades.
Secretary Clinton is expected to bring with her specific proposals for reforms that the country’s leaders could implement. To entice them, Clinton will also put on the table certain incentives for action. Officials declined to say what those steps or carrots were before this week’s meetings.
A senior State Department official traveling with Clinton said the trip came together after months of planning and consultation with the country’s opposition leaders, in particular Aung San Suu Kyi. Two weeks ago President Obama phoned her en route to the East Asia Summit in Bali, Indonesia to seek her final approval before announcing he would send Secretary Clinton to the reclusive southeast Asian country.
Critics of Clinton’s trip say it’s too big a reward too soon, since Myanmar’s leaders have yet to make deeper changes to allow for free and fair elections. The senior U.S. official, speaking on State-Department-imposed terms of anonymity, brushed aside any criticism, saying that the Obama administration had consulted closely with Aung San Suu Kyi before sending Clinton.
“She was very encouraging of this trip,” the State Department official said of the opposition leader. “Very supportive of efforts the United States is taking, thought that we have handled things exactly right, and has made some suggestions of some steps that she believes that we should take in order to support the reform effort, but also has suggested certain things that she thinks are still premature which we agree with.”
The official declined to specify what steps the opposition leader had recommended or advised against, but the close consultation with her, including the president’s call earlier this month, suggests the Obama administration has been deferential to Aung San Suu Kyi’s advice on how to handle the new openness. Part of that may reflect what the U.S. official admitted is a lack of understanding of how the country’s opaque government makes decisions.
The official also sought to blunt any blowback should Clinton’s gamble fail to yield any changes.
“We are actually deeply realistic for what can be expected. There have been a number of failed attempts at reform over decades,” the official said. “We recognize the challenge of this early phase and so we are mindful the risks we’ll be very careful as we go forward.”
Officials say Clinton’s visit comes as the United States sees an opportunity to pry Myanmar away from China, an ally for many years. The Obama administration has recently pivoted its focus away from Europe and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and toward Asia. This effort to reach out to Myanmar is seen as another effort to contain China’s influence in the region.
The visit to Myanmar poses special challenges for Secretary Clinton given the closed nature of the country. The airport in the administrative capital of Naypyidaw is only operable during daylight hours and lacks the necessary security to host Clinton’s plane, so the plane will be kept overnight in Thailand and return the next day to bring her to Yangon, also known as Rangoon, where she will meet with Aung San Suu Kyi at the home that was her prison during house arrest.
“She’s very much looking forward to just sitting down and having an opportunity to listen and talk about developments that are underway,” the State Department official said. “She believes that there is a genuine effort underway. She believes that this may be an historic opportunity. She wants the Untied States to try to reinforce this effort, as well as other countries in the international system,” the official said of Aung San Suu Kyi.
Clinton will also visit the Shwedegon pagoda, a spectacular Buddhist temple housing tons of gold and numerous precious jewels. She is expected to make an offering there.
Myanmar has also raised concerns within the United States government over its close military relationship with North Korea, particularly missile and nuclear technology sharing. The U.S. official said Clinton plans to confront Myanmar’s leaders about its missile technology cooperation. In 2009 Clinton sounded the alarm about a possible nuclear technology nexus between Myanmar and North Korea.
Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, recently released information about continued cooperation. The U.S. official, however, downplayed that risk.
“Obviously it’s an issue of concern, but to date our primary area of focus again is the missiles. I think we looked at this fairly carefully and we do not see signs of a substantial (nuclear) effort at this time,” he said. “We believe that there have been surreptitious contacts, military missile related perhaps in other areas in the past. We’ve made clear that the continuation of these kinds of efforts will make it very difficult for the United States to take the steps to improve the relationship that Naypyidaw seeks,” the official said.