NAYPYIDAW, Myanmar - Looking to cement a foreign policy success and prod democratization in one of the world’s most isolated and authoritarian nations, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton sought Thursday to test the willingness of Myanmar’s leaders to expand nascent reforms.
On a historic visit here, Clinton said she was hopeful, but not yet convinced, that “flickers of progress” in the Southeast Asian country will burst into flames of change.
Clinton, speaking to Myanmar’s President Thein Sein during their meeting, said: “I am here today because President Obama and myself are encouraged by the steps you and your government have taken to provide for your people.
Sein said Clinton’s visit was a historic chapter in relations between the two nations. Their meeting took place in a grandiose palace that has 40-to-60 foot ceilings, chandeliers and teak doors. It is situated near a virtually empty, 20-lane highway.
Clinton’s diplomatically risky trip to a nation that receives few outsiders and still heavily restricts what its people can see and read is meant to test whether new civilian leaders are truly ready to throw off 50 years of military dictatorship. U.S. officials said she would also press the leadership on severing military and suspected nuclear ties with North Korea.
“I am obviously looking to determine for myself and on behalf of our government what is the intention of the current government with respect to continuing reforms both political and economic,” Clinton told reporters before her arrival here. Hers is the first trip by a U.S. secretary of state to the country also known as Burma in more than half a century.
She was meeting senior Myanmar officials, including the president, the foreign minister and top lawmakers, in the capital Naypyidaw on Thursday before heading to the commercial capital of Yangon. There she will see opposition leader and Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who is returning to the political scene after decades of detention, harassment and violent repression.
Successive military regimes canceled 1990 elections that Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party won. She has said she plans to run in upcoming elections.
“We and many other nations are quite hopeful that these flickers of progress … will be ignited into a movement for change that will benefit the people of the country,” Clinton said. President Barack Obama used the same description - “flickers of progress” - when he announced he was sending Clinton to Myanmar.
Clinton was greeted at Naypyidaw’s small airfield by a deputy foreign minister, several other officials and a large contingent of international press who were granted rare visas to cover her visit. But her presence here appeared to take second stage to the expected arrival Thursday of the prime minister of Belarus and his wife, to whom two large welcoming signs were erected at the airport and the road into the city. Belarus is often criticized for its poor human rights record and is subject to U.S. sanctions similar to those Myanmar is under.
No signs welcoming Clinton were visible as her motorcade bounced from the airport to the city on a bumpy cement road that was largely devoid of vehicles, with traffic police stopping small and scattered groups of cars, trucks and motorbikes at intersections.
Officials say Clinton will be seeking assurances from Myanmar’s leaders that they will sign an agreement with the U.N. nuclear watchdog that will permit unfettered access to suspected nuclear sites. The United States and other Western nations suspect Myanmar has sought and received nuclear advice along with ballistic missile technology from North Korea in violation of U.N. sanctions. An American official said missiles and missile technology are of primary concern but signs of “nascent” nuclear activity are also worrying.
The Obama administration also hopes to loosen Chinese influence in a region where America and its allies are wary of China’s rise. Myanmar has historic ties with China, but has pulled back from a major dam project sought by China amid signs the new leaders are sensitive to criticism that China is taking unfair advantage of its much smaller but resource-rich neighbor.
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