President Obama announced that, after observing "flickers of progress" within Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, he would send Hillary Rodham Clinton there next month, making her the first secretary of State to visit the nation in more than 50 years.
"For decades, Americans have been deeply concerned about the denial of basic human rights for the Burmese people," Obama said at a meeting in Bali, Indonesia on Friday. "We want to seize what could be an historic opportunity for progress."
Obama said he spoke with Myanmar's pro-democracy leader Aung San Su Kyi on Thursday night and she approved of sending Clinton, who will explore whether the United States can “empower a positive transition in Burma and begin a new chapter between our countries.” There is no guarantee the sanctions will be lifted, he added.
In mid-October, the Obama administration said it was seeing hopeful signs that its dual-track approach of pressure coupled with outreach to Myanmar is paying dividends. After U.S. special representative Derek Mitchell returned from a trip to Rangoon, for instance, the government released more than 200 political prisoners. In response, the administration lifted a travel restriction on Burmese officials traveling to the opening of the U.N. General Assembly, and invited the Burmese foreign minister to meetings at the State Department in Washington.
“I think we’re seeing a positive trend line and encouraging signs that are raising expectations both inside and outside the country,” Mitchell told reporters at the time. After decades of military rule, Myanmar this year put in place a new civilian government that has taken steps to liberalize the hardline policies of the junta.
The U.S. pushed back against the idea that its stepped-up engagement with Myanmar is meant to contain or encircle China in any way. "It's about Burma, not about China," a senior administration official told reporters. "China itself benefits from a Burma that is stable, that is prosperous, and that is -- they’re integrated into the international community... engagement with Burmese leaders by the United States does not come at the expense of China or China’s relationship with Burma."
The U.S. engagement with Myanmar, announced after leaders of the ASEAN chose the country to hold the trade group's rotating chairmanship in 2014, is something that will resonate broadly in Southeast Asia, officials said. The U.S. held close consulations with China on Burma, and Beijing has so far been supportive of American engagement and has been encouraging political reform inside the country, they added.