The author asks how the U.S. can support Burma's voices of change, like Aung San Suu Kyi. | AP
By SEN. JOHN F. KERRY | 2/7/12 9:30 PM EST
After almost a half-century of military dictatorship, Burma is now sending signals that it is ready to change direction and rebuild its relationship with the United States. Thein Sein, the country’s president, is bringing in a series of reforms that both baffle and excite Burma-watchers. The country’s Democrats, for the first time in decades, are finding reasons for encouragement.
Since August, when the leading opposition figure Aung San Suu Kyi first met with Thein Sein, a reform process has been gaining momentum. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made her historic trip to Burma in November, and she made clear what was required to improve the bilateral relationship. Thein Sein’s government is, so far, responding positively to the administration’s strategic engagement.
The leadership’s actions, not just their words, demonstrate some progress. In recent weeks, the government set free hundreds of political prisoners; scheduled parliamentary elections for April, and has been working to reach a cease-fire in a long-standing conflict with an ethnic group.
Now, the question for U.S. policymakers — and lawmakers — is: What comes next? How best do we test Burma’s intentions and how best do we empower the country’s voices of change?
Congress historically has set the terms of our Burma policy. Strong oversight, control over spending and comprehensive sanctions give us significant influence. Changing Congress’s long-held views on Burma, or Myanmar, as its leaders call the country, can’t happen overnight. But if the government continues to make progress, we are prepared, as we’ve done with past governments in transition — including Vietnam — to work to improve our relationship.
For that to happen, we will need to see free elections, with impartial international observers. If these elections go well, after consulting closely with Aung San Suu Kyi, other Burmese democrats, and our friends overseas, we are willing to consider easing some sanctions as part of a gradual process that encourages reform and improves the lives of the Burmese people.
We also will need to see progress in several other areas. First, the government must unconditionally release all remaining prisoners of conscience. Second, it needs to find a way to stop fighting with the major ethnic groups long enough to advance a dialogue on national reconciliation. Humanitarian groups and international observers need greater access to the border regions, where atrocities reportedly continue.