The United States moved to restore full diplomatic relations with Myanmar on Friday, rewarding the sweeping political and economic changes that the country’s new civilian government has made, including a cease-fire with ethnic rebels and, only hours before, the release of hundreds of political prisoners.
Freeing the prisoners, which President Obama praised as a “substantial step forward for democratic reform,” was one of the most significant gestures yet by Myanmar’s new civilian government to address international concerns about the country’s repressive history, which led to decades of diplomatic and economic isolation.
Among 651 prisoners given amnesty on Friday were leaders of the brutally repressed student protests in 1988; a former prime minister, Khin Nyunt, ousted in an internal purge in 2004; and monks and others involved in anti-government protests in 2007 that were known as the “saffron revolution.” A senior State Department official in Washington described Myanmar’s move on Friday as the largest single release of political prisoners in Asia’s history.
The administration’s reciprocal announcement is the latest in a series of cautious moves that have significantly eased tensions between the United States and Myanmar, also known as Burma. The diplomatic engagement — which one senior administration official said would have seemed unthinkable a year ago — now appears to be accelerating, though he and other officials stopped short of calling it irreversible.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who visited the country for the first time only six weeks ago, said in Washington: “This is a momentous day for the diverse people of Burma. And we will continue to support them and their efforts and to encourage their government to take bold steps.”
A renewed relationship between the two countries has the potential to remake American diplomacy in Asia, where the Obama administration says it hopes to refocus its foreign policy at a time when China’s influence is expanding. The closer ties could enhance trade and help integrate Myanmar into regional alliances sympathetic to the West.
Since taking office last March, the country’s president, U Thein Sein, has overseen a raft of changes that appear to indicate a new willingness to end military rule for the first time since a coup in 1962. He has sought to reform the economy, allow political competition and end the country’s economic and diplomatic dependence on China, its huge neighbour to the north. In a move that presages a far broader shift in policies, his government halted work in September on a $3.6 billion dam under construction on the Irrawaddy River by a Chinese state company.
The United States never fully severed relations with Myanmar, as it did over the years with Iran, Cuba and North Korea, but it downgraded relations and withdrew its ambassador after elections in 1990. Those elections were won by the party of the main opposition leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, though never recognized by the military government, which instead cracked down and put her under house arrest. Subsequent administrations have since toughened sanctions on most trade with Myanmar.
The Obama administration is not yet considering lifting sanctions, but Mrs Clinton announced that it would soon nominate an ambassador and invite Myanmar to send one to Washington. She pledged other actions in response to continued reforms, though she did not spell them out.