Mrs Clinton goes to Naypyidaw

Joshua Kurlantzick

Hillary Clinton’s visit to Burma, the first by such a senior US official in five decades, received front-page coverage in most American newspapers, and around the world. Images of the secretary of state meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi and sitting down with President Thein Sein made it look as if Clinton’s visit would prove a monumental event in US-Burma relations, and in Burma’s political trajectory.

Coverage of Clinton’s visit in Burma itself, however, was relatively muted. In the main state-run newspaper, the New Light of Myanmar, it merited only a brief mention, while the concurrent visit from the president of Belarus and his wife was given broad coverage. At the airport in Naypyidaw Clinton was met by only a small welcome party, while the Belorussian delegation got a huge one. The generals have a long, deep friendship with Belarus, and still mistrust the US. But the disparity also highlights a point that few in the Clinton delegation would have admitted: Burma may indeed be changing, but the reforms have little to do with the US, its policies or its secretary of state.

Last year’s elections, which began the process of reform, were (accurately) condemned by the US and other Western nations for being far from free; it’s hard to believe that after them the Burmese government would suddenly start taking cues from the West. It’s also unlikely that the main reason the generals allowed the election, and the reforms that have come since, was in order to open up to the US and its allies, as some American officials have suggested. After all, the West ostracised the Burmese regime for two decades, with little effect. In the year to August 2011, according to the Diplomat, Burma was promised $20 billion in foreign direct investment: despite Western pressure, the generals were having little trouble finding money from Thailand, China, India and South Korea.

The impulse for change has, rather, come from within. As many Burmese analysts have told me, the generals who officially ‘retired’ after last November’s vote probably see gradual reform as the best way to ensure that they are never toppled by a popular revolt. (In a cable sent two years ago, and since published by WikiLeaks, the US embassy in Rangoon observed as much, but the point wasn’t emphasised during Clinton’s visit.) As things stand now, the Burmese military can control the pace and scope of change, and avoid going the way of Gaddafi or Ceauşescu. Though she has not been explicit about it since being released from house arrest last year, Aung San Suu Kyi has often spoken of the importance of forgiveness. By involving her intimately in the reforms, the generals have increased their chances not only for avoiding prosecution should there be an eventual transition to a democratic civilian government, but also for holding onto their assets.