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Hillary Clinton celebrates Myanmar vote and her role in it

Story highlights
  • Hillary Clinton stresses her own key role in nudging the former generals in charge of Myanmar
  • Experts say Clinton's role was important, but local and geopolitical factors had larger effect

Washington(CNN) Hillary Clinton is claiming a share of the credit after elections in Myanmar delivered a landslide win for the democratic opposition.

The results from Sunday's vote came after a political opening that Clinton helped nurture and that forms a central part of her legacy as secretary of state.

The Democratic front-runner released a statement that was careful to note remaining obstacles to full democracy in the Southeast Asian nation and to share credit with her old boss, President Barack Obama.

But she also stressed her own key role in nudging the former generals in charge of Myanmar, also known as Burma, toward reform, hinting at the importance of the election to her own political prospects, given that her time as the top U.S. diplomat lacks a long list of clear diplomatic triumphs.

Clinton is likely to use the election in Myanmar to fend off claims by Republicans -- who universally targeted her at their latest campaign debate on Tuesday night -- that her tenure as secretary of state was an unmitigated disaster, following reversals on the "reset" of relations with Russia that she managed and the Western intervention in Libya.

READ: Myanmar election: Suu Kyi to meet with President

"The Burmese election on Sunday was an important, though imperfect, step forward in the country's long journey toward democracy," Clinton said in a statement issued on Wednesday night. "It was also an affirmation of the indispensable role the United States can and should play in the world as a champion of peace and progress."

A long road ahead

Though final results are not yet in, the election delivered a huge victory for Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy and a defeat for the military establishment that has ruled the country for decades.

Though Suu Kyi is prevented by the constitution from becoming president, she has indicated she will nominate a figurehead from her party for the post and she experts to effectively rule the country as the power behind the throne.

Clinton stressed that one election does not a democracy make and that the country has a long road ahead on national reconciliation and constitutional reform. But she said promoting political change in a nation like Myanmar was exactly the kind of goal that U.S. foreign policy should pursue -- arguing for not just her record but her approach to geopolitics.

"When I was Secretary of State, President Obama and I worked with Aung San Suu Kyi and others on the ground in Burma to nurture flickers of progress into a real opening," Clinton said, praising the Burmese people for their determination. "As President, I will ensure that the United States continues to stand with them and with everyone around the world who seeks liberty and dignity."

The 'tantalizing' prospect of democracy

The Myanmar election also represents a gain for Obama's policy of rebalancing U.S. foreign policy toward Asia and his signature strategy of being willing to talk to American foes -- like Myanmar's military leaders -- as he prepares for a trip to Asia next week.

Obama spoke to Myanmar President Thein Sein on Wednesday night to commend the government on its role in running the election. The White House said the leaders agreed that the formation of a new government would be an "important step forward in Burma's democratic transition."

Obama also spoke to Suu Kyi to congratulate her on the NLD's success after years of persecution, which included her own long periods of house arrest.

"The President commended her for her tireless efforts and sacrifice over so many years to promote a more inclusive, peaceful, and democratic Burma," a second White House statement said.

Clinton devoted an entire chapter in her memoir "Hard Choices" to Myanmar, presenting herself as the decisive driver of the U.S. effort to bring the country in from the cold and toward the "tantalizing" prospect of democracy.

"I had my eyes open about the risks, but when I weighed up all the factors, I didn't see how we could pass up this opportunity," Clinton wrote, saying she was keen to prod the generals running the country to move toward political reform but wary of embracing them too fast.

A grim, Orwellian place

And it is indisputable that Myanmar has come a long way since Washington spotted a chance to push the reform process in 2009.

For decades before the political thaw, it was a grim, Orwellian place, stifled by an insidious national security apparatus and isolated from the world by a paranoid military junta that used poverty and repression as instruments of power.

But the blossoming of economic and political freedoms changed life in a ramshackle nation where even Internet and mobile phones are a recent luxury. Hundreds of political dissidents were freed from hellish military prisons and Suu Kyi -- after years under house arrest -- is now a member of parliament.

READ: On the road: Myanmar

The United States, meanwhile, has lifted many of its sanctions on the Myanmar government and sent an ambassador back to the country. In late 2011, Clinton was the first U.S. secretary of state to visit Burma since the military clamped down in 1962.

Critics, however, point to the military's engineering of the electoral system to weight it in its favor and say that shows the reform process in Myanmar is not as clear a triumph as Clinton might like to portray it.

Though the army has withdrawn from front-line politics and Sein Thein has taken off his uniform, Myanmar's constitution still guarantees the military the right to appoint lawmakers to 25% of seats in parliament, whatever the result of the election.

Some critics also believe that Obama's visit to Myanmar in 2012 -- on a trip that triggered extraordinary scenes of Burmese on the streets mobbing his motorcade -- was too soon.

Meanwhile, continued violence against the persecuted Muslim Rohingya minority and multiple civil wars that have raged since the country's independence from Britain in 1948 also undermine the idea that Burma is a success story.

Clinton seems to have anticipated many of the problems and noted in her book that when she left office, Myanmar's fate still hung in the balance.

"Burma could keep moving forward, or it could slide backward," Clinton wrote.

'More good than harm'

There's also the complication of just how big a share Clinton should get of whatever credit there is to claim.

"The policy of engagement that the Obama administration adopted was helpful," said Lex Rieffel, a Brookings Institution economist who has studied Myanmar and visited many times. "It did more good than harm as opposed to the sanctions policy. (But) let's not attribute the changes in that country to U.S. policy."

In her book, Clinton writes that she spotted an opportunity in early trips to Asia to work on Myanmar, especially after Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono told her during her first visit to Asia as secretary of state in February 2009 that the generals might be interested in a dialogue with the United States.

She also coordinated closely with Suu Kyi.

Marveling at iPhones

But while Clinton did play an important role in mentoring the process, the primary motive for Myanmar's opening appears to have been rooted in local and geopolitical factors.

"Burma's opening was mainly a process driven by Burmese leaders, rather than the U.S., as they sought to create strategic space against China and generate economic growth through greater exposure to the world," said Daniel Twining, an Asia expert who worked in the State Department during the Bush administration.

There was clearly an impulse from within the Myanmar government to shake free of self-imposed isolation. The country's poverty and lack of access to outside capital because of U.S. and European sanctions contrasted sharply with economic development in a region where states like Thailand and Indonesia were roaring ahead.

U.S. officials have privately shared stories about how the gulf between Myanmar and its fast-rising Southeast Asian neighbors was brought home at regional summits when ministers from Myanmar marveled at innovations like iPhones sported by their counterparts in other countries.

Such nuanced verdicts, like the one on Myanmar, often have a tendency to get exaggerated on the campaign trail, and any attempt by Clinton's supporters to paint her Myanmar policy as a Nixon-to-China moment would be overblown.

But if the successful election translates into an enduring milestone on Myanmar's rocky road to eventual democracy, she would be justified in claiming an important role in an unlikely political transformation.