Obama Pivots to Engage Myanmar, Sees Reforms Too Important to Ignore


Secy. Clinton will be the first Secretary of State to visit the country in more than half a century when she travels to Burma next month.

Clinton’s trip “will explore whether the United States can empower a positive transition in Burma and begin a new chapter between our countries,” Obama said. “That possibility will depend upon the Burmese government taking more concrete action. 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 to live with greater measure of freedom, prosperity and dignity. And that possibility is too important to ignore.

“The persecution of democratic reformers, the brutality shown toward ethnic minorities and the concentration of power in the few military leaders has challenged our conscience and isolated Burma from the United States and much of the world,” Obama told reporters covering his trip to Bali, Indonesia for the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) conference. The U.S. government refers to the country by its former name, before it was changed by the new regime.

The United States has imposed trade and monetary sanctions against Myanmar over the last decade in response to the oppression, and has openly supported Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest until late last year.

“For decades Americans have been deeply concerned about the denial of basic human rights for the Burmese people,” he said. But now “the government has released some political prisoners, media restrictions have been relaxed and legislation has been approved that could open the political environment. So taken together, these are the most important steps toward reform in Burma that we’ve seen in years,” he said.

Those steps, he said, offer an opening for a change in relations.

“We want to seize what could be an historic opportunity for progress. And make it clear that if Burma continues to travel down the road of democratic reform it could forge a new relationship with the United States of America,” he said, though he warned that there is much more to be done.

Specifically those steps included releasing more than 100 political prisoners in October, passing new laws that would potentially allow Aung San Suu Kyi’s party to run in elections, allow trade unions, unblocking some websites, and allowing access to Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, a senior administration official said.

Before making the announcement, Obama called Aung San Suu Kyi from aboard Air Force One to confirm her support for the U.S. opening the dialogue. During the 20-minute call, she and Obama discussed the reconciliation process, and putting an end to the violence. She strongly supported Clinton’s upcoming visit, the official said. She even asked Obama about how his dog Bo was doing and told him she had a dog too.

“We’ve decided to take this step to respond to the positive developments in Burma and to clearly demonstrate America’s commitment to the future of an extraordinary country, a courageous people, and universal values,” Obama said.

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