Friday, December 02, 2011

A Historic Meeting of Two Great Ladies

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton becomes the highest level U.S. government official to visit Burma in half a century. After Senator James Webb of Virginia visited Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma a year or two ago, he recommended that the U.S. government adopt a policy of engagement with the military junta rather than continue the devastating isolationist policies that doesn't work. His example was Vietnam. Once we normalized relations with Vietnam in the 1990s, it has become a thriving country and the lives of its people have improved. I was pleased to hear someone else advocating the same view that I've come to believe. Sanctions only seem to work on a country like South Africa, where there is a fairly large middle class who stand to lose money and their livelihoods affected by international boycotts. In countries with totalitarian rule of a tiny elite, sanctions and boycotts only serve to keep the country isolated in a cult of personality. We may not agree with the government, but by engaging the country with open trade, this leads to international contact and information exchange. That can only be good for the people who are only cut off from the rest of the world.

I was thrilled when I heard the Obama Administration announce that Secretary of State Clinton was being sent to Burma to talk with the government and to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi. This is a step in the right direction. Hillary Clinton is so lucky to be the one to meet the famous dissident.

There does seem to be a change blowing through the air, as the military junta has called for new elections and allowed the National League for Democracy to register as a political party and be on the ballot. This is the party that won a landslide in 1990 and had the military junta honoured the election, Aung San Suu Kyi would have been the prime minister. But because they did not honour the election results, Aung San Suu Kyi became a powerful symbol and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. Her years of house arrest, during which her husband was dying of cancer and she was not allowed to see him or her sons, has made her into international icon. U2 wrote a song about her ("Walk On") and now French director Luc Besson is showing his film, The Lady, at film festivals around the world in which Michelle Yeoh plays the Burmese dissident.

In 2007, Buddhist monks led a rebellion against the regime that ended in brutality. Had the people kept up the massive demonstrations against the government, they might've won. A typhoon also devastated the country, which exposed the weakness of the government. Perhaps the regime finally came to the realization that they can't run the country on their policies anymore. Maybe they have looked to Thailand as a model. In Thailand, which is a Constitutional Monarchy led by a King, any time the prime minister does something the powerful don't like, the military steps in with a coup to remove him from power. Now Thailand has a female prime minister and it'll be interesting to see how long she lasts before the military steps in. Perhaps Burma is finally at the place where they will allow people to vote in elections and for the opposition party to make cosmetic changes, while monitoring the situation and possibly stepping in if the party does things the military junta doesn't like. It all remains to be seen.

As one guy at the World Affairs discussion group pointed out at the last meeting, he believes that Burma is looking for new allies after China's dam project is affecting Burma in a negative way. This is how international politics gets played. Incredibly nuanced, which is why ideologues who are ignorant about the intrigue and complexities should not be allowed to play.

Before anyone says that this visit is proof that Hillary should be president, let's get real. If she was president, she would not be meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi. The person she selected for Secretary of State would be the one meeting with the dissident. Until relations are normalized, the leader does not meet with foreign governments or political figures. This is why the Secretary of State position is actually the best job in America. I'd much rather be Secretary of State than president. You get to deal with foreigners and build relationships, and you're meeting with interesting and intelligent people around the world. There's no denying that Hillary Clinton's popularity around the world is due to her outspokenness and advocacy for women's rights. If she was our president right now, her approval ratings would be about where Obama's are, because she would be attacked by Republicans for her domestic policies.

Hillary has said that she'll be vacating the position at the end of Obama's first term and that she has no intention of serving in political office after 2012. I'm not sure how serious she is, because I think the best thing Obama can do for his reelection campaign is to ask Vice President Joe Biden to become Secretary of State and ask Hillary Clinton to be his second-term Vice President. This will secure her place in history as the first female Vice President in history and give her a front-runner spot for the 2016 presidential nomination.

But, I suspect that this is Hillary's swansong. Her place in history is already set. If Democrats want the first female president in history, we need to start recruiting and electing into office female candidates for Congress, the Senate, and the governor's offices around the country. The Republicans are doing that because they are desperate for an energizing, historical figure. I hope the first woman president will be a Democrat, not a Republican. And I also hope that Aung San Suu Kyi will become Burma's Prime Minister after the next election. Its time for great women to lead their countries in an era of peace.

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