Christian Caryl

False Positive

Why Hillary Clinton's greatest foreign policy "success" isn't the win her new book claims.


I’ve just been reading about the story of Maru Seng, a 45-year-old man who, one day in October of last year, was captured by Myanmar government troops. They accused him of being a rebel. They tied his hands and legs together, then bound his legs to a chair; they left him in that position all through the night without any food, water, or visits to the toilet. The next morning he seized an opportunity to escape — whereupon one of his guards shot him in the head.

Amazingly, he survived. But when he regained consciousness, his captors continued torturing him. They tied a bamboo stick to his shins, and two soldiers jumped up and down on it. Then they tied him up with a wire and hung him from a beam in the ceiling of the house where he was being held:

They tied my neck, my hands behind back, arms, and feet. It was tighter than before. It hurt so much, it was so tight and it felt like my whole body would explode.

Eventually they let Maru Seng go, warning him not to leave the area. But he fled anyway — which is why he was ultimately able to tell his story to the members of a human rights group called Fortify Rights, which has just published a detailed report on the abuses committed by Myanmar’s armed forces in their three-year war against separatist rebels from the Kachin ethnic group.

You could be forgiven for not knowing about the civil war in Kachin State; after all, it’s been taking place in one of the most remote parts of Southeast Asia, a place that few outsiders will ever see. Yet the harrowing account above comes from a country that the Obama administration is touting as the major success of its foreign policy. During his recent speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, President Obama boasted about Washington’s "diplomatic initiative" and "American leadership" had contributed to "political reforms" that opened up "a once-closed society." (As if eager to emphasize the magnitude of this success, he cited the population of the country in question: "40 million." Myanmar’s population is actually closer to 56 million — but hey, what’s a few million among friends?)

The president isn’t the only one crowning himself with Burmese laurels these days. In case you somehow missed it, Hillary Clinton is rolling out a new memoir — this time covering her term as Obama’s secretary of state. This is a big deal, since her book tour is looking a lot like a prelude to her expected presidential campaign. Reporters from the Washington Post, who have already seen the text of her book, tell us that she cites Myanmar’s opening as one of her major achievements. We’re told that Clinton "played a leading role" in the administration’s much-touted reorientation of American foreign policy toward Asia, and that one of her big successes here was in "reestablishing diplomatic ties to the long-isolated country of Burma…." Another Washington Post story claims that Clinton’s "outreach to Burma led to political reforms and helped move one of China’s closest regional allies closer to Washington."

Well, there’s certainly no disputing that the two countries have moved closer; the question is whether it’s been worth the price. Then-Secretary of State Clinton’s visit to Yangon in December 2011 was supposed to mark a new era of friendship between Burma and the United States — and it certainly did that. Relations between the two countries have steadily deepened since then, perhaps reflecting their common concern about the rising regional power of China. Over the past three years, the Obama administration has suspended most of the political and economic sanctions that the United States once imposed on the country’s harsh military dictatorship, measures that were intended to reward the Myanmar government for its steps to open up the political system. Since he came to power in March 2011, President Thein Sein freed political prisoners, loosened up restrictions on the media, and allowed Aung San Suu Kyi and her pro-democracy political party, the National League for Democracy, to participate in elections that ultimately gave them a presence in parliament. (The photo shows Clinton and Aung San Suu Kyi sitting together at an event in Yangon in November 2012.)

Those were all significant steps. The problem, says Jennifer Quigley, is that the United States and other Western countries hoped to encourage additional steps in the same direction — but that hasn’t happened. Quigley’s organization, the U.S. Campaign for Burma, wanted to see Washington hold back on rewards to the Myanmar government in order to maintain leverage for greater change. "We didn’t want to see economic sanctions lifted until we had seen more progress on human rights and ceasefire dialogue for the ethnic minorities," she says. "We’ve been frustrated that they’ve given away that leverage of sanctions for too little in return." She praises Obama for his decision to sign an order last month prolonging some remaining sanctions against individual members of the old regime. But it’s clear from her tone that she and her colleagues believe that the United States has already given away the goods.

She and other activists have good reason to feel frustrated. After the initial euphoria of Thein Sein’s early moves toward change, Myanmar has stagnated. Aung San Suu Kyi and her small group of pro-democracy colleagues sit in parliament, but they have little real power. Aung San Suu Kyi has launched a campaign to amend the current constitution, which was designed by the military to allow for a liberalization of national political life that would nonetheless leave it firmly in charge of the parliament and all the other national institutions that count. But so far the generals show no inclination to budge — leaving the pro-democratic forces little chance of fielding a viable candidate in next year’s presidential election. In a word: The military remains firmly in control. Democracy remains a theory.

Meanwhile, a brutal ethnic conflict between Buddhists (who make up the lion’s share of the country’s faiths) and the country’s 2 million Rohingya Muslims has made a mockery of the much-lauded "opening."

Dozens have died and hundreds of thousands have been displaced, often under hideous con
ditions. Radical Burmese nationalists have seized upon widespread hatred of Muslims to launch openly discriminatory bills in parliament, and the military has shown little inclination to block the measures. Some outside experts are warning of the possibility of genocide. Happily, some Burmese activists are finally pushing back against the forces of intolerance. Even so, the picture remains grim.

And then there’s that vicious war against the Kachin. Yes, it’s true that the government is continuing its roundtable peace talks with representatives of the country’s restive ethnic minorities (who, including the Kachin, make up about 40 percent of the population). But there’s no hint of the sort of overarching political solution that the minority groups have been aiming for, and which would bring Myanmar the real and substantive peace that has eluded it ever since independence in 1948. It’s hard to imagine how Myanmar can ever be considered a real democracy unless it can find a political arrangement — some form of federalism, presumably — that really includes all ethnicities. That’s why Myanmar’s pro-democracy activists have always pushed for reforms that would achieve this. Right now, though, such reforms aren’t anywhere in sight.

It’s probably too early to declare Myanmar’s opening a failure. Whatever you want to call it, though, it’s still a long way from democracy. And it certainly is not an unmitigated success. If this is the biggest achievement Hillary Clinton can claim from her term as secretary as state, it doesn’t reflect well on her legacy.

 Twitter: @ccaryl

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