Clinton seeks greater openness from Myanmar

November 30, 2011 - 12:16 AM

BUSAN, South Korea (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday she is looking forward to her historic trip to isolated Myanmar this week and will suggest specific reforms to the country's leadership to improve ties with the United States.

Clinton travels to Myanmar's capital later Wednesday on the first visit to the Southeast Asian nation by a secretary of state in more than 50 years. She told reporters at an international aid conference in South Korea before her departure that she was cautiously optimistic about her trip but said Myanmar would have to implement more reforms before the U.S. will reciprocate.

"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," she said.

She declined to discuss the specific measures she would suggest or how the U.S. might reciprocate.

After meeting with senior Myanmar officials on Thursday, Clinton will travel to the commercial capital of Yangon where she will see opposition leader and Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

The Obama administration is betting that the visit will pay dividends, promoting human rights, limiting suspected cooperation with North Korea on ballistic missiles and nuclear activity and loosening Chinese influence in a region where America and its allies are wary of China's rise.

"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," she said, reflecting the administration's hopes for the trip.

Clinton is expected to seek assurances from Myanmar's leadership that they will sign an agreement with the U.N. nuclear watchdog that will permit unfettered access to suspected nuclear sites. The U.S. and other western nations suspect that Myanmar has sought and received nuclear advice along with ballistic missile technology from North Korea in violation of U.N. sanctions.

She will also press the government's baby steps toward democratic reform after 50 years of military rule that saw brutal crackdowns on pro-democracy activists like Suu Kyi and members of her National League for Democracy party.

Clinton's private dinner on Thursday and formal meeting with Suu Kyi on Friday will likely be the highlights of the visit. Suu Kyi, who intends to run for parliament in upcoming elections, has welcomed Clinton's trip and told President Barack Obama in a phone call earlier this month that engagement with the government would be positive. Clinton has called Suu Kyi a personal inspiration.

The trip is the first major development in U.S.-Myanmar relations in decades and comes after the Obama administration launched a new effort to prod reforms in 2009 with a package of carrot-and-stick incentives.

The rapprochement sped up when Myanmar held elections last year that brought a new government to power that pledged greater openness. The administration's special envoy to Myanmar has made three trips to the country in the past three months, and the top U.S. diplomat for human rights has made one.

Those officials pushed for Clinton to make the trip, deeming a test of the reforms as worthwhile despite the risks of backsliding.

President Thein Sein, a former army officer, has pushed forward reforms after Myanmar experienced decades of repression under successive military regimes that cancelled 1990 elections that Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party won.

Last week, Myanmar's parliament approved a law guaranteeing the right to protest, which had not previously existed, and improvements have been made in areas such as media and Internet access and political participation. The NLD, which had boycotted previous flawed elections, is now registered as a party.

But the government that took office in March is still dominated by a military-proxy political party, and Myanmar's commitment to democratization and its willingness to limit its close ties with China are uncertain.

Corruption runs rampant, hundreds of political prisoners are still jailed and violent ethnic conflicts continue in the country's north and east. Human rights activists have said Clinton's visit should be judged on improvements in those conditions.

Myanmar's army continues to torture and kill civilians in campaigns to stamp out some of the world's longest-running insurgencies, according to rights groups. They say ongoing atrocities against ethnic minorities serve as a reminder that reforms recently unveiled by the country's military-backed government to worldwide applause are not benefitting everyone.

And, although the government suspended a controversial Chinese dam project earlier this year, China laid down a marker ahead of Clinton's trip by having its vice president meet the head of Myanmar's armed forces on Monday.

China's Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Vice President Xi Jinping pledged to maintain strong ties with Myanmar and encouraged Gen. Min Aung Hlaing to push for solutions to unspecified challenges in relations.

Myanmar also remains subject to tough sanctions that prohibit Americans and U.S. companies from most commercial transactions in the country.

U.S. officials say Clinton's trip is a fact-finding visit and will not result in an easing of sanctions. But officials also say that such steps could be taken if Myanmar proves itself to be serious about reform. Other steps being contemplated include upgrading diplomatic relations that would see the two countries exchange ambassadors. The nations are now represented in each other's capitals by charges d'affaires.

Despite high hopes, U.S. officials remain decidedly cautious about prospects for Clinton's visit and that caution has been echoed by members of Congress, some of whom have expressed concern that the trip is an undeserved reward for the regime.