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'Flickers Of Progress' Prompt Plan For Clinton To Visit Myanmar

When Myanmar President Thein Sein abruptly suspended construction of a dam near the headwaters of the Irrawaddy River (above), he said the project was not "in the interests of the people." That gave many people there hope that human rights are getting more respect.
Courtesy photo
When Myanmar President Thein Sein abruptly suspended construction of a dam near the headwaters of the Irrawaddy River (above), he said the project was not "in the interests of the people." That gave many people there hope that human rights are getting more respect.

When he announced early today that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will visit Myanmar next month, President Obama cited "flickers of progress" on respect for human rights in the country also known as Burma as grounds for the first visit by an American secretary of state in 50 years.

Among those signs: the release of some political prisoners new President Thein Sein's government and relaxing of some restrictions on the media.

"Of course, there's far more to be done," Obama added. "We remain concerned about Burma's closed political system, its treatment of minorities and holding of political prisoners, and its relationship with North Korea. But we want to seize what could be an historic opportunity for progress, and make it clear that if Burma continues to travel down the road of democratic reform, it can forge a new relationship with the United States of America."

And, the president said, democracy activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi had assured him that "she supports American engagement to move this process forward." As The Associated Press says, "she spent 15 years on house arrest by the nation's former military dictators but is now in talks with the new civilian government about reforming the country."

A "senior administration official" later told reporters traveling with the president in Asia that Obama and Suu Kyi spoke by telephone for 20 minutes on Thursday.

What has changed in Myanmar?

Earlier this month on Talk of the Nation, host Neal Conan spoke with a longtime NPR journalist who had "just returned from one of several trips to Myanmar." The journalist was not identified "to protect his ability to report." Here's some of what the journalist reported about recent developments in the country:

"I've made two trips there in the past six months," he said. "The first was shortly after the November elections, and the second was just a few weeks ago. And during the first trip, everyone I met was completely dismissive of the elections and the new government. They called it old wine in a new bottle, meaning the military was simply putting a civilian face on its authority. This time around, though, the atmosphere was very different. And a great deal of that, I think, had to do with the president's decision last month to suspend a major dam project on the Irrawaddy River - much to the chagrin of neighboring China, which was building and paying for the dam, and which stood to reap the electricity generated by it.

"The new president, Thein Sein, he's a former general, reportedly tight with the military's longtime leader. And his abrupt decision to halt construction delighted many of his countrymen and environmentalists and opposition activists, all of whom were bitterly opposed to this project, which they said threatened the health and the economic viability of the river. He said that he's suspended construction because the dam went against the will of the people. And that's not something you hear too often in Myanmar - not in the last couple of decades, anyway.

"So it was a brilliant PR move. I'm not sure if he meant it, or whether he was just trying to send a message to the Chinese that they don't get their way all the time, but it won an extraordinary amount of goodwill on the part of the people."

As for the release of political prisoners, the journalist was cautious:

"You have to be careful here. I mean, there's an estimated 2,000 political prisoners being held in Myanmar's jails. So the release last month of a few hundred was welcomed cautiously by many in the opposition and in the international community, but they want to see more action on that.

"But here's an interesting thing: The new government has appointed a human rights commission, a new human rights commission. It's never happened before. And they have called for the release of prisoners of conscience. Now, before, Myanmar didn't even admit that it had political prisoners. So that's another sign of progress."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mark Memmott is NPR's supervising senior editor for Standards & Practices. In that role, he's a resource for NPR's journalists – helping them raise the right questions as they do their work and uphold the organization's standards.
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