By Paul Richter, Simon Roughneen and Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times
Reporting from Washington, Bangkok and New Delhi — The Obama administration restored full diplomatic relations with Myanmar, moving swiftly to reward the military-backed government for reforms that include a cease-fire with ethnic insurgents and the release of political prisoners.
The move Friday came only six weeks after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made a historic visit that highlighted Washington’s attempts to reengage with a strategic Asian nation that remains under strict sanctions for its dismal human rights record.
The White House was eager for rapprochement partly to pull the resource-rich country out of China’s political and economic orbit. Clinton flew to the capital, Naypyidaw, shortly after President Obama announced a “pivot” in U.S. military and diplomatic policy to reassure allies in the Asia-Pacific region who are nervous about China’s increasing assertiveness.
Diplomatic relations with Myanmar were kept to a minimal level over the last two decades but never severed. The administration now will send an ambassador to the country for the first time since 1990, and it invited the Myanmar government to send an envoy to Washington.
On Friday, Obama hailed Myanmar’s progress on several fronts, especially the announced release of 651 prisoners. Although U.S. officials could not confirm the total, or the identities of those released, they said it included some pro-democracy leaders who had languished in prison since authorities in Myanmar, which is also known as Burma, crushed peaceful antigovernment protests in 1988.
In a statement, Obama called Friday’s release “a substantial step forward for democratic reform.”
“Much more remains to be done to meet the aspirations of the Burmese people,” he said, “but the United States is committed to continuing our engagement with the government.”
U.S. officials also hailed the government’s cease-fire with the ethnic Karen rebels, saying it may open the way to ending one of the world’s longest-running insurgencies. The Karen have fought the central government for autonomy since the country won independence from Britain after World War II.
Clinton described the reforms as “historic and promising” and said Washington would “meet action with action.” But she said full normalization of relations, including steps to unravel the web of sanctions, would take time.
Since late 2010, Myanmar has held an election, released pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from detention and recognized her previously banned opposition National League for Democracy party. It also legalized labor unions and suspended construction of a controversial China-backed dam.
Though President Thein Sein has pushed through most recent reforms, analysts say army strongman Than Shwe still holds significant sway and could try to reverse course if he feels liberalization has gone too far. Thein Sein met with Suu Kyi three months after his March 2010 election, winning her support for many of his policies.
A senior State Department official said U.S. officials still lacked details on the prisoners who were released and that it wasn’t clear that the fighting between the government and the minorities had actually stopped.
“Unacceptable violence continues,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The U.S. wants Myanmar to release more than 1,000 other political prisoners and adopt laws that guarantee free speech, freedom of assembly and other basic rights.
Obama administration officials hope the diplomatic initiative will help further Southeast Asia’s pro-Western orientation and offset the growing influence of China. Business groups are hoping U.S. companies can get access to reserves of oil and gas, as well as other natural resources.
Another U.S. goal is to convince Myanmar to abandon what U.S. officials view as dangerous security ties with North Korea.
U.S. officials have worried in the past that Myanmar might try to develop a nuclear bomb, or ballistic missiles, with help from Pyongyang. Administration officials have urged Myanmar’s leaders, who deny any illicit nuclear program, to allow United Nations nuclear inspectors to examine records and facilities.
A 2004 U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks in 2010 reported that hundreds of North Koreans were allegedly helping to build missiles and an underground bunker at military sites hidden in the Myanmar jungle. In recent years, the U.S. Navy has turned away North Korean ships suspected of carrying weapons to Myanmar.
The restoration of ties was welcomed by key Republicans in Congress, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, both longtime critics of the regime. Their comments suggest the issue will not become a political target in this year’s presidential campaign.
State media in Myanmar said the prisoners released came from the country’s four main opposition groups: student leaders who inspired the 1988 uprising, monks who led a 2007 rebellion, army and intelligence officials purged in 2004, and members of restive ethnic communities.
This is “a glorious day for Burma. Freedom is reborn now,” said Htein Lin, an artist and former political prisoner who lives in London.
Human rights groups were more cautious. Amnesty International warned that restoration of ties could weaken the pressure to end human rights abuses in Myanmar.
Another advocacy group, the U.S. Campaign for Burma, also was wary. “We still want to wait and see what else would happen to those who are still in jail,” said a spokeswoman, Myra Dahgaypaw.
It could take several days to get an exact count of the political prisoners released, especially since the lists held by activist groups differ. Most said the number appears to be over 300.
Murray Hiebert, an Asia specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington, called the cease-fire with the Karen rebels “surprising and significant,” but he added that cease-fires can easily break down.
Both sides acknowledged the agreement but provided few details. The Myanmar government says it is also negotiating with several other ethnic groups. The Karen were the only major ethnic group never to have reached a peace agreement, even temporary, with the government.
“I’d say this is one of the historic, great moments,” said Alana Golmei, a coordinator with India’s Burma Center Delhi activist group. “Guns are no solution, although there’s always a risk they could pick up guns again.”
“To say they’ve solved all the problems would be a mistake,” said Bridget Welsh, a political scientist at Singapore Management University. “But from where they’ve come in a year, it’s quite a ways.”
Times staff writers Richter reported from Washington and Magnier from New Delhi. Special correspondent Roughneen reported from Bangkok.Show