The United States is planning to send an ambassador back to Burma as President Barack Obama's administration carefully ramps up its engagement with the Burmese junta in the hope of encouraging greater reform there.
"In Indonesia, I spoke about the flickers of progress that were emerging in Burma. Today, that light burns a bit brighter, as prisoners are reunited with their families and people can see a democratic path forward," Obama said in a Friday statement, following the junta's announcement that it would release 651 of the estimated 2,000 political prisoners in the country. "Much more remains to be done to meet the aspirations of the Burmese people, but the United States is committed to continuing our engagement with the government in Nay Pyi Taw."
"I have directed Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton and my administration to take additional steps to build confidence with the government and people of Burma so that we seize this historic and hopeful opportunity," Obama said.
Clinton became the first secretary of State in over 50 years to visit Burma when she traveled there in December. In her own statement, she said she has seen progress in the country on several fronts, and emphasized that Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi also welcomed the junta's recent steps as a sign of the government's commitment to reform. Clinton also noted the ceasefire announced Thursday between the Junta and the Karen National Union, an opposition ethnic group that has been fighting the regime for decades.
Clinton noted several indications of progress in Burma, including the government's easing of restrictions on media and civil society, engaging Suu Kyi in a substantive dialogue, amending electoral laws to pave the way for her party to participate in the political process, setting a date for the by-elections this year, passing new legislation to protect the right of assembly and the rights of workers, beginning to provide humanitarian access for the United Nations and NGOs to conflict areas, and establishing its own national Human Rights Commission.
"As I said last December, the United States will meet action with action. Based on the steps taken so far, we will now begin," she said. "An American ambassador will help strengthen our efforts to support the historic and promising steps that are now unfolding."
These steps and optimistic rhetoric is being accompanied by a whole slew of high-level U.S. delegations to Burma. The State Department's Special Representative for Burma Derek Mitchell visited this week, as did the State Department's Ambassador at Large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons Luis CdeBaca. A senior State Department official said that Assistant Secretary for International Security and Nonproliferation Tom Countryman will travel to Burma next week.
There are also a series of congressional visits to Burma in the pipeline. Rep. Joe Crowley (D-NY) was in Burma this week. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) will be there next week. And more lawmakers are planning visits soon after, we're told. Sens. Jim Webb (D-VA) and John McCain (R-AZ) were the only U.S. lawmakers to visit Burma in the past three years.
The United States had an ambassador in Burma from 1947 until 1990, when career Foreign Service officer Burton Levin left the post but was not replaced. Since 1990, the U.S. mission in Burma has been led by a chargé d'affaires, currently Michael Thurston.
A senior State Department official, speaking with reporters Friday, warned that it might take a while to actually place an ambassador in Burma. The nominee has to be selected, vetted, and then confirmed. Confirmations this year could be difficult due to the GOP fight with Obama over his recess appointment of Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Richard Cordray, which Republicans believe is legally suspect.
Two names that were floated in the past for Mitchell's job -- and now therefore may be up for the ambassador's position -- were former NSC Senior Director for Asia Mike Green, now with CSIS and Georgetown, and Human Rights Watch Washington Executive Director Tom Malinowski, a leading writer on Burma. Green is close to Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific affair Kurt Campbell, the architect of the administration's Burma policy, as is Mitchell. Malinowski is set to travel to Burma next week.
In October, The Cable reported on the details of the State Department's plan for engaging Burma through "step for step" actions that could lead to a relaxing of international and U.S. sanctions. The conventional wisdom is that the administration would first focus on relaxing those sanctions that don't require going through Congress, such as executive orders against Burmese individuals and restrictions on lending to Burma through international financial institutions.
The State Department official emphasized that Congress would be consulted every step of the way and he singled out Webb for special recognition.
"He has pioneered many of these actions. He was one of the first senators on the ground, pushing for the release of prisoners, asking the United States to engage actively. And the secretary wanted me to underscore his service ... basically as a diplomat in the Senate," the official said.
Campbell clashed with Webb early in the administration because Webb was out ahead of the administration's Burma policy, pushing for more robust engagement. Webb also gave Campbell grief during Campbell's confirmation process, but the two have made up now and, more significantly, their approaches to Burma are now in alignment.
The Burmese government has also signed a ceasefire with ethnic Karen rebels, and is reportedly pursuing deals with other rebel groups. The Cable asked the official if there are signs that the junta has actually halted its violence against ethnic minorities, considering that it has broken ceasefires in the past and reports on the ground point to continued and widespread violations of human rights.
"It's difficult to fully ascertain whether or not there's been a diminution of violence in ethnic areas ... but there still are unacceptable levels of violence in ethnic areas and that continues," the official said.
CNN wanted to know when the U.S. government will stop calling the country "Burma" and start using the junta's preferred name, "Myanmar." The official said the United States would discuss that with stakeholders both inside and outside Burma.
"There are many factors that go into that," the official said. "We adhere to the reference of the country as Burma. The secretary and Aung San Suu Kyi discussed this when they were together and this is an issue that will be addressed in due course."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.