Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Clinton in Myanmar to gauge 'true intentions'

Naypyidaw, Myanmar (CNN) -- Hillary Clinton arrived in reclusive Myanmar on Wednesday in search of "flickers of progress," the first visit there in 50 years by a U.S. secretary of state.

"I will obviously be looking to determine for myself what the intention is of the current government with respect to continued reforms," Clinton said from Busan in South Korea before taking off for Naypyidaw, the capital.

"We and many other nations are very hopeful that these flickers of progress as President (Barack) Obama called them in Bali will be ignited into a movement for change that will benefit the people of the country."

The historic two-day visit comes as the Asian country is undergoing a period of rapid political change that the Obama administration cautiously says it finds encouraging as well as promising. Clinton's trip is an indication that the time could be right to forge a new relationship between the nations, the White House has said.

Ruled by a junta since 1962, Myanmar is now under a new president, Thein Sein, elected in March. The new government freed dozens of political prisoners last month following the earlier release last November of Aung San Suu Kyi, the 1991 Nobel Peace winner and one of the world's most famous pro-democracy supporters.

Clinton was scheduled to meet Suu Kyi for a private dinner. It will be the first time Clinton has met Suu Kyi, but they have spoken on the phone before, a senior State Department official said. Suu Kyi was was held for most of the past two decades under house arrest and was released last November

Obama also spoke to Suu Kyi by phone two weeks before the trip, the official said. Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy recently announced that she will run in the next parliamentary election. The group also decided to re-enter politics.

"She was very encouraging of this trip, very supportive of efforts the United States is taking, thought that we have handled things exactly right, and has made some suggestions of some steps that she believes that we should take in order to support the reform effort, but also has suggested certain things that she thinks are still premature which we agree with.," the official said.

Myanmar democracy veteran Win Tin, the 82-year-old National League for Democracy free speech campaigner who spent almost 20 years in prison, says the changes are cosmetic and will only benefit the country's ruling elite.

"Changes happen, but actually they happen on paper," Win Tin said. "(There have been) announcements to the media and (talks with) Aung San Suu Kyi and so on. "But at the grass roots level there is no change at all. People suffer a lot ... people suffer human rights violations."

He said he did not know what was driving the reforms but suggested that members of the government could fear prosecution for human rights abuses if the opposition wins parliamentary elections in three months' time.

The United States has greeted the reforms with cautious optimism, still referring to the country as Burma, the name the country used before democratic election results were thrown out by the military junta more than 25 years ago.

Obama has noted the release of some 200 political prisoners, relaxation of media restrictions and new legislation that could open up the political environment, but he said there is more to be done. The administration still is concerned, officials say, about Myanmar's closed political system, its treatment of minorities and the holding of other political prisoners.

Clinton said the United States wants more political prisoners released, a "real" political process with elections, and an end to conflicts with ethnic minorities that have displaced tens of thousands of the country's residents.

The administration, however, is not ending sanctions and is not making any abrupt changes in policy. In an interview with CNN's Brianna Keilar, Clinton said "One of the reasons I'm going is to test what the true intentions are and whether there is a commitment to both economic and political reform."

U.S. officials say the Obama administration began reviewing its policy on Myanmar in 2009 when it came into office. It began talking with major players in the region, including China, and with European leaders.

A key conclusion among the countries was that the policy of stringent economic sanctions was not yielding results for the strategy the administration wanted to follow. So began what the administration refers to as "parallel engagement," talking with the regime while, at the same time, talking with Aung San Suu Kyi.
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