Friday, December 2, 2011

Obama offers Burma 'new phase' in relations

Bangkok Post

RANGOON - US President Barack Obama offered Burma a new era in relations if it reforms, and promised democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi his eternal support in letters hand-delivered by his top diplomat Thursday.
The high-stakes personal intervention in a country long regarded by the West as a pariah state came during a historic visit by Hillary Clinton, the first US secretary of state to set foot in the isolated nation in 50 years.
Barack Obama
In a message to President Thein Sein, Obama offered a "new phase" in relations and requested "tangible outcomes" from a political reform effort which Washington has decided to test before deciding its next steps on Burma.

"These are incremental steps and we are prepared to go further if reforms maintain momentum. In that spirit, we are discussing what it will take to upgrade diplomatic relations and exchange ambassadors," Clinton told reporters.

The United States has been represented by a lower-ranking diplomat, a charge d'affaires, as a protest since Burmese military rulers refused to accept the results of 1990 elections swept by Suu Kyi's forces.

The opposition leader holds sway in Washington -- where Burmese exile groups keep up a vocal lobbying campaign against the military-backed government -- and any easing of US sanctions on Burma would almost certainly need her approval.

In an indication of the high esteem in which Suu Kyi is held in Washington, Clinton was due to meet twice with the democracy champion -- first for dinner Thursday and then for more formal talks on Friday morning.

In his letter to Suu Kyi, Obama signalled there would be no daylight between Washington and her interpretation of political events in Burma.

"We stand by you, now and always," Obama wrote, telling his fellow Nobel laureate that he had long admired her "brave and unwavering struggle for democracy".

The country has surprised observers with a series of reformist moves in the past year including releasing Suu Kyi, holding dialogue with the opposition and freeing some political prisoners.

It also has continued to make war on ethnic border groups, keep some political prisoners locked up, and acquiesce in the region's biggest drug trade.
Aung San Suu Kyi
Obama told Thein Sein, a former general, that Washington wanted to "explore how the United States can support and advance your efforts to transition to democracy and promote protection of human rights".

US officials said the message, released by Clinton's aides, aimed to signal that Obama was ready to invest personal prestige in engaging Burma.

The letter did not mention the words "Myanmar" or "Burma".

The former military junta tried to rename the country "Myanmar" in 1989, reverting to a historical name. The United States is among those who still spell the country's name as "Burma", a rebuke to the military dictators for failing to ask the country its opinion of a name change.

In her landmark talks, Clinton won promises of further reforms from Thein Sein and offered cautious incentives to encourage new action, saying more needed to be done before US sanctions could be lifted.

"Any steps that the government takes will be carefully considered and ... will be matched because we want to see political and economic reform take hold," she told reporters in the isolated showcase capital, Naypyidaw.

Thein Sein, who took charge in March after Burma nominally ended decades of military rule, himself hailed a "new chapter in relations" as he met Clinton at his imposing palace decked out with chandeliers and gold-leaf chairs.

Clinton said the United States would open talks with Burma to start joint searches for the remains of troops killed in World War Two, when the strategically placed country was a major battleground.

She also invited Burma to become an observer to the Lower Mekong Initiative, a US programme that offers cooperation on health and the environment in Southeast Asian nations, and voiced support for IMF missions to the country.

Suu Kyi's opposition, which boycotted last year's poll, plans to contest by-elections next year that will be a major test of the new political climate.

Obama announced he would send Clinton to test reform efforts in Burma two weeks ago during an Asia-Pacific tour, in the most significant US gesture towards the country in many years.

The top US diplomat urged Burma to free all political prisoners, estimated by activists to number between 500 and more than 1,600, and pressed the government to end long-running ethnic conflicts.
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