The long road to democracy in Myanmar is uncertain at best. But this week's visit by Hillary Rodham Clinton — the first by a U.S. secretary of state in half a century — marks further thawing in the relationship between the West and one of the world's most repressive regimes.
In symbolic terms, Clinton's visit amounted to a diplomatic breakthrough. Her meeting with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi will certainly embolden prodemocratic forces and increase pressure on the military-backed government to continue taking its first steps toward loosening its oppressive rule.
No one should oversimplify the difficulties ahead in laying the foundation for true political change. While Myanmar's new civilian government has opened up the political process, freed some dissidents and reached out for some sense of legitimacy with the international community, the generals still hold power behind the scenes. And Suu Kyi poses to many of them the same threat that prompted the military junta in 1990 to annul elections won by her opposition National League for Democracy party, leading to her house arrest for the better part of two decades.
The Obama administration, though, was right to seize an opening with Myanmar. Clinton announced the United States would ease restrictions on international aid and development assistance, and the two sides agreed to discuss normalizing diplomatic ties. The West needs to be realistic about the potential and the pace for any reforms. Keeping sanctions in place allows Washington to test the regime's commitment to stop the harassment of minority groups, to open the democratic process and hold free and fair elections. It would be a mistake to reward Myanmar for pledges alone.
Whether this thaw in relations leads to anything more remains to be seen. The nation formerly known as Burma, though, has been put in the global spotlight like never before. Clinton's trip speaks to the value of sustained diplomacy. The administration was right not to put Myanmar in a corner on the secretary's visit. Bringing about true reform may take years, using a combination of engagement and isolation at strategic times. If Myanmar's government intends to change, the administration has signaled it will react in kind. That was the right message to send, and the most the West should have offered Myanmar at this early stage.