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Clinton To Test Myanmar's Readiness For Reforms

Nov 28, 2011
Originally published on November 28, 2011 4:33 am

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sets off for Asia Monday, and part of her trip will see her as the first U.S. secretary of state to visit Myanmar – formerly known as Burma.

Secretary Clinton says she's going to Myanmar to test the waters to see how committed the country's new leader is to reforms. She'll also meet with Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who is rejoining the political process in the country and who has been guiding U.S. policy, according to activist Aung Din.

"She has been in touch with U.S. authorities all the time," Din says. "U.S. policy right now is being guided by her [and] she's our key figure to unifying the country."

Aung San Suu Kyi, who has spent years in prison and under house arrest, has made it clear that she's ready to work now with Myanmar's new president, Thein Sein, who has begun to open up the country in recent months. Aung Din is not so sure.

"Even though I'm not very confident yet, I have to support it," he says.

Din is a former student activist who spent more than four years in jail before fleeing the country and starting up an advocacy group called U.S. Campaign for Burma. He backed the Obama administration's approach of maintaining sanctions while also trying to engage Myanmar's leaders. He calls Clinton's trip risky, but hopes she will deliver a tough message to the regime.

"I just wish the regime will take this visit seriously and respond positively by making some concessions," he says. "Importantly, the releasing of all remaining political prisoners and ending the civil war with ethnic minorities."

Secretary Clinton told NBC recently that these are all issues that will be high on her agenda.

"They need to begin to look at how they resolve these ethnic conflicts that have driven tens of thousands of Burmese of different ethnicities into refugee status," Clinton said. "They have to have a real electoral system with an open door to political parties and free expression."

Clinton says this is about whether Myanmar is on a path to democracy.

Before going to Myanmar, Clinton will be attending a conference in Busan, South Korea. That's where donor nations and recipients are grappling with another major challenge: tight budgets.

"The background truth that we are facing up to is [that] we are going to have to do a lot more with a lot less," says Paul O'Brien of Oxfam America.

O'Brien says that the conference will bring together donors and developing countries to talk about a deal they had made. If poorer countries clean up corruption and manage their finances better, donors will try to be more predictable with their aid. O'Brien says the latest reports show that donors are not keeping their end of the bargain.

"On the 13 indicators that the donors were supposed to meet, they failed on 12 of them and succeeded on one, and the only one they succeeded on was talking to each other more," he says. "So this whole idea that, 'you guys get your act together, we will trust you more,' is failing."

In the meantime, emerging powers like China have been offering big investments in Africa and Latin America without all the strings attached. They have a lot of money to invest but they don't want to see discussion in the same way around democracy, human rights and transparency, O'Brien says.

"So the real question for the secretary is: is she going to be able to move the discussion back towards what we were all there for in the first place?" he says. "Let's get these countries to be more accountable and let's hold them accountable and let's make sure their citizens can hold them accountable [That's] the deeper political agenda that we have all been working on for many decades."

That's an agenda Secretary Clinton will be trying to push both in Korea and in Myanmar this week.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And Hillary Clinton heads to South Korea, later today, for a gathering of donor nations looking to make foreign aid more effective. But her news-making stop comes later in the week, when she will be the first secretary of state in 50 years to visit Myanmar.

That country's repressive regime long ago turned it into one of the most isolated countries in the world. The Secretary's visit will support a new political opening in Myanmar, what President Obama has described as flickers of progress. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Secretary Clinton says she's going to Myanmar - formerly known as Burma - to test the waters, to see how committed the country's new leader is to reforms. She'll also meet with Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi who's rejoining the political process in the country and who has been guiding U.S. policy, according to an activist, Aung Din.

AUNG DIN: She has been in touch with U.S. authorities all the time. And the U.S. policy right now is being guided by her. She's our key figure to unifying the country.

KELEMEN: Aung San Suu Kyi, who has spent years in prison and under house arrest, has made it clear that she's ready to work now with Myanmar's new president, Thein Sein, who has begun to open up the country in recent months. Aung Din is not so sure.

DIN: Even though I'm not very confident yet, I have to support it.

KELEMEN: Aung Din is a former student activist who spent more than four years in jail before fleeing the country and starting up an advocacy group called the U.S. Campaign for Burma. He backed the Obama administration's approach - maintaining sanctions while also trying to engage Myanmar's leaders. He calls Clinton's trip risky, but hopes she will deliver a tough message to the regime.

DIN: I just wish that the regime will take this visit seriously and respond positively, by making some concessions - importantly the releasing of all remaining political prisoners and ending the civil war with ethnic minorities.

KELEMEN: Secretary Clinton told NBC, recently, that these are all issues that will be high on her agenda.

SECRETARY HILLARY CLINTON: They need to begin to look at how they resolve these ethnic conflicts that have driven tens of thousands of Burmese of different ethnicities into refugee status. They have to have a real electoral system, with an open door to political parties and free expression. I mean, this is about whether they are on a path to democracy.

KELEMEN: Before going to Myanmar, Clinton will be attending a conference in Busan, South Korea. That's where donor nations and recipients are grappling with another major challenge - tight budgets.

PAUL O'BRIEN: The background truth that we are all facing up to, is we're going to have to do a lot more with a lot less.

KELEMEN: That's Paul O'Brien of Oxfam America who says that the conference will bring together donors and developing countries to talk about a deal they had made. If poorer countries clean up corruption and manage their finances better, donors will try to be more predictable with their aid. O'Brien says the latest reports show that donors are not keeping their end of the bargain.

O'BRIEN: On the 13 indicators that the donors were supposed to meet, they failed on 12 of them and succeeded on one. And the only one they succeeded on was talking to each other more. So this whole idea that you guys get your act together and we will trust you more, is failing.

KELEMEN: And in the meantime, emerging powers like China have been offering big investments in Africa and Latin America, without all the strings attached.

O'BRIEN: They've got lots of money to invest but they don't want to see discussion in the same way around democracy, and human rights, and transparency. So the real question for the secretary, is is she going to be able to move the discussion back towards what we were all there for in the first place, which is let's get these countries to be more accountable and let's hold them accountable and let's make sure that their citizens can also hold them accountable - the deeper political agenda that we have all been working on for many decades.

KELEMEN: That's an agenda Secretary Clinton will be trying to push, both in Korea and in Myanmar this week.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.