Former US President Clinton Praises Burma Transition

By Simon Roughneen 14 November 2013

RANGOON — Speaking in Rangoon on Thursday, former US President Bill Clinton talked up Burma’s political reforms, calling the country’s transition from military rule to a nominally civilian government “remarkable.”

“The whole world has been pulling for Myanmar since you opened up,” Clinton added.

It wasn’t all backslapping, however, as the former American president, whose two terms in office ended in 2001, warned that Burma needs to involve ethnic minorities more closely in government, saying “it is important to have inclusive and transparent politics.”

On his first visit to the former military-ruled country, Clinton gave a 40-minute speech that was wide-ranging in its political allusions—drawing on the former president’s first-hand work on peace processes in the Balkans, the Middle East and Northern Ireland—but was short on specifics directly related to Burma.

Acknowledging that he was on unfamiliar terrain, Clinton joked that he had been briefed prior to his trip by wife Hillary, the former US secretary of state, and daughter Chelsea—both of whom have visited Burma in the last two years.

Perhaps making an oblique reference to Buddhist protests against the ongoing visit to Burma by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), during which protestors on Wednesday referred to Burmese Muslims as “animals,” Clinton mentioned his administrations’ funding of research on the human genome, which he said showed that all human beings are 99.5 percent the same.

Despite being criticized over American inaction during and after the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Clinton made several references to the mass murder. Mentioning the need for forgiveness and healing in countries such as Burma, which are divided by ethnic and religious conflict, Clinton delivered a lengthy and poignant concluding anecdote about a bereaved Tutsi mother who not only forgave but gave a job to the Hutu killer of one of her seven children murdered during the genocide.

Jumping from politics to economics, Clinton compared Nigeria, which he described as a resource-rich but corrupt and impoverished nation, with Botswana, where a transparent diamond export system has seen citizens’ incomes grow. Clinton warned that resource-laden countries cannot expect to prosper unless graft is curbed and transparency made the norm.

Burma is known for its array of natural resources, such as gemstones, timber, and oil and gas, but the former military-ruled country typically languishes near the bottom of global corruption indices and is regarded as a tough place to do business.

“Every day you can go online and see how much money is in the diamond trust,” Clinton said, referring to Botswana. Clinton contrasted Botswana with Nigeria, saying that despite its oil and gas wealth, the West African giant “couldn’t keep the lights on”—a failing that will likely resonate in Burma, where less than 30 percent of the population has electricity, despite Burma’s own oil and gas resources.

Some of those energy reserves are expected to be tapped in the coming years by foreign and Burmese firms alike, with the government planning to announce the winners of a tender for 11 shallow-water blocks and 19 deep-water blocks by early 2014 at the latest.

The event took place at the Myanmar Peace Center (MPC), a government-linked organization that facilitates the various peace negotiations between Naypyidaw and Burma’s alphabet soup of ethnic minority militias.

After the speech, Clinton left without taking questions from the journalists squeezed into a small holding area at the back of the MPC.

Clinton said he arrived in Burma on Wednesday, and prior to his speech on Thursday afternoon, met with Burma President Thein Sein as well as House Speaker Shwe Mann and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the latter pair already pushing themselves as possible successors to Thein Sein, pending national elections in 2015.