There were plenty of pleasant surprises for Burma this week, including one from an unlikely source — the U.S. government.
President Barack Obama said in a statement there were “flickers of progress” in the country. In Bali, Indonesia for the East Asia Summit, he announced he was sending State Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton to Burma for an official visit.
This is a big deal. Washington has long been critical of of Burma’s poor human rights record and its close relationship with North Korea.
Now there is cautious optimism. After over 40 years of a brutal military dictatorship there is a new president in charge. Thein Sein is a former general but he has started opening up the country. Some political prisoners have been released, media censorship has been loosened and, most significant of all, he has started talking with Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy icon and symbol of resistance to repression in Burma.
In the country’s largest city, Rangoon, there was jubilation Friday when Suu Kyi announced she and her National League for Democracy party would take part in upcoming elections. They skipped 2010’s election, the first held in Burma since 1990.
Burma owes this sense of change to the U.S., says Irrawaddy, an independent online magazine about Burma based in Thailand. In an in-depth feature, its founding editor, Burmese exile Aung Zaw, writes that the Obama administration in particular played a significant role in making this change come about.
“The U.S. certainly does not deserve sole credit for the modest changes that have taken place thus far in Burma, or for the hoped-for more substantial changes to come… But Washington has been one of the key forces leading to what Aung San Suu Kyi has called an environment where “real change is possible.”