WASHINGTON – One morning in late 2011, Hillary Rodham Clinton visited Aung San Suu Kyi’s weathered, lakeside villa. It was the early days of Myanmar’s transformation from an authoritarian pariah state to a budding democracy, and the meeting was historic: No senior U.S. official had visited in 50 years and Suu Kyi had spent the last 15 of those under house arrest. The talks became a powerful symbol of progress for a country trying to climb out from under decades of political and economic misrule.
But today, the promise of a free and democratic Myanmar is rapidly receding as sectarian violence escalates and the government backslides on a number of past reforms. That’s causing genuine alarm on Capitol Hill among lawmakers from both parties.
What happens has implications for Clinton as she prepares for a potential presidential bid for the White House. Until now, Myanmar has been widely viewed as the one clear-cut triumph of her tenure as secretary of state. Now, as the civilian regime that replaced Myanmar’s military junta embraces increasingly brutal tactics against Muslim minority populations, the jewel in the crown of Clinton’s tenure risks vanishing into thin air.
Positioning for 2016
The dip in progress in Myanmar comes as Clinton and her phalanx of political supporters race to paint her tenure at the State Department in as positive a light as possible ahead of her prospective presidential run. Her career is under an equal amount of scrutiny from America Rising, a Republican opposition research firm. The firm is reportedly studying up to dispel any embellishments or half-truths that Hillaryland might churn out related to her State Department career. Many Republicans view Myanmar as a counter-narrative to the hyperbole surrounding Clinton’s diplomatic record.
Myanmar is making progress on several fronts, but success hinges on the government’s ability to meet three primary challenges: reining in a corrupt and rapacious military, resolving a decades-long civil war with ethnic minority states, and revising a flawed and undemocratic constitution. Human rights has proven to be the biggest stumbling block by far for Myanmar’s leaders as well as a persistent thorn in the side of U.S. diplomacy.
After Clinton’s first visit, Myanmar ’s political transformation proceeded swiftly. During her trip, she had promised to establish new U.S.-led development programs, provide tens of millions in medical aid and consider the exchange of ambassadors. The following March, a mostly free by-election saw Suu Kyi appointed to parliament, while her long beleaguered party, the National League for Democracy, won 43 of 46 parliamentary seats. In light of that victory, Clinton announced that the United States would undertake new steps to foster reform in Myanmar, including opening a USAID mission and relaxing restrictions on U.S. nonprofit activities in the country.
By summer 2012, the Obama administration had begun easing sanctions.
Myanmar’s ruler, Thein Sein, responded in kind by freeing hundreds of political prisoners, engaging the NLD in parliament, and formally lifting press censorship before abolishing the censorship board altogether in 2013. And, in one of the biggest economic reforms intended to stabilize the economy and encourage foreign investment, the Central Bank floated its currency’s exchange rate for the first time.
But since Clinton’s first visit, sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslims has gradually escalated, culminating in a series of deadly attacks on Muslims across the country. More than 600,000 people have been displaced by civil conflict, and nearly 1 million are in need of humanitarian aid, according to USAID. And in Rakhine, Human Rights Watch has accused state security forces of carrying out a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya people.
To be sure, the overall changes in the last three years have been impressive, even if grave challenges remain.
But many in Congress have grown increasingly frustrated with what they see as an Obama administration effort to claim success in Myanmar at the expense of addressing dire problems in the country.
The State Department is pushing for greater engagement. In particular, it wants to invite members of Myanmar’s military to study under the International Military Education and Training program. That doesn’t sit well with human rights observers and some members of Congress who worry about how the Burmese military would use that education – and about what message that type of American support would send the government.
Recent democratic reforms have proven similarly ineffective at reducing the military’s role in everyday life. This past January, a group of 13 women’s rights groups in Burma released a damning report documenting more than 100 recent cases of rape committed by state security forces against women in conflict areas.
David Mathieson, a Human Rights Watch researcher based in Myanmar, argues that further military support will only embolden Myanmar’s armed forces. The military has got off scot-free, he said. And the West is in a position where they don’t want to speak out more because they don’t want to endanger the programs they’ve already invested in.
But the State Department maintains that concerns about military assistance are misplaced. We wouldn’t be doing any of the standard tactical logistical training that we’ve done in the past, a senior State Department official said, emphasizing that any bilateral training would chiefly focus on human rights, civilian oversight, democratization and professionalization.
What Myanmar’s regression means for Clinton is unclear. Without Myanmar, there’s a paucity of foreign-policy achievements to tout – marking a stark contrast with her successor Kerry’s potential diplomatic breakthroughs on Iran’s nuclear program and Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, as well as his willingness to wager his tenure on a long-shot effort to bring about an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. According to reports, Clinton’s memoir will try to promote her leadership role in the Arab Spring, including the ouster of Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi. But the democratic uprisings in the Mideast have lost much of their luster.
Others argue that foreign-policy achievements don’t win elections, so any harm to her electability will be minimal. I don’t know the long-term odds of whether this effort (in Myanmar) will be successful, said Tommy Vietor, a former spokesman for the National Security Council. I do believe with 100 percent certainty that not a single voter will make their decision based on her policy towards Burma. You’ll be lucky if they know where the (expletive) it is.