International diplomacy, it seems, often turns on big issues and well-known, easily recognized individuals. There’s nothing normal-sized, so to speak, about the political affairs of the Mideast or the U.S. relationship with China,. Still, not every diplomatic advance or setback need be writ large. Recent events in Myanmar, also known as Burma, are a case in point.
For years, Myanmar has been a pariah among nations. There was good reason. Its military government was brutal and authoritarian, crushing all opposition. The rulers’ long-term house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, whose peaceful promotion of democracy earned her a Nobel Prize, was an outrage that stirred an international furor. Nothing, it seemed, could change Myanmar’s internal policies or purposefully isolationist outlook on global affairs.
Policies, though, can shift, even in a hidebound place like Myanmar. Sometimes a small push here or a changing relationship there serves as the catalyst for change. That seems to be the case in Burma, where quiet but persistent overtures from the United States and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appear to have prompted the Burmese rulers to cautiously engage the international community. Those tentative steps should be counted as a diplomatic triumph.
Clinton’s just concluded trip to Myanmar paved the way for significant change. If discussions continue and if the junta follows through on its pledges to hold fair elections and to allow Suu Kyi to play an unrestricted role in them, those changes could be significant. They could include restoration of long dormant diplomatic relationships and even an exchange of ambassadors. The latter would be especially meaningful on two vital fronts. It would strengthen the U.S. position in Southeast Asia and it would establish a strong U.S. presence in a country that has been closely allied with China.
There’s no guarantee, of course, that the short-term advances produced by Clinton’s visit to Myanmar will turn into long-term diplomatic progress. The next step is up to Myanmar’s rulers. If they open up government, release the thousands of people imprisoned solely for their political beliefs and put an end to government-inspired ethnic warfare, then new relationships and international assistance might be possible. Clinton clearly hopes that will be the case.
Even so, the secretary of state is properly cautious. She’s encouraging and promoting change in Myanmar and signaling the possibility of new U.S. and international relationships with the nation, but at the same time she’s careful to tell the rulers there and the rest of the world that there are no current plans to end the tough sanctions imposed on the country. That’s an entirely appropriate carrot-and-stick approach. It carries the promise of reward in return for positive action taken one step at a time.