President Barack Obama said Friday he will send Hillary Clinton to Myanmar next month in the first visit by a US secretary of state for 50 years, to propel “flickers” of democratic reform.
The announcement of the historic trip, to begin on December 1, came as opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s party said it would return to Myanmar’s official political arena after years of marginalisation under military rule.
Obama said he made the decision to send Clinton to Myanmar after speaking directly with Suu Kyi for the first time, in a phone call with his fellow Nobel laureate made from Air Force One on Thursday.
Since elections a year ago, the new nominally civilian government has surprised observers by holding direct talks with Suu Kyi, freeing 200 dissidents and freezing work on an unpopular mega-dam.
“Last night, I spoke to Aung San Suu Kyi directly and confirmed she supports American engagement to move this process forward,” Obama said at an Asian summit on the Indonesia resort island of Bali.
Obama said that after “years of darkness, we have seen flickers of progress in the last several weeks”.
Clinton will “explore whether the United States can empower a positive transition in Burma,” Obama said, using the country’s former name.
“That possibility will depend on the Burmese government taking more concrete action,” he said. “If Burma fails to move down the path of reform it will continue to face sanctions and isolation.”
US officials said she would visit the capital Naypyidaw and main city Yangon on the two-day visit.
Also on Friday, Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy announced it would re-register as a political party and take part in upcoming by-elections, after years of marginalisation.
The party — which won 1990 elections in a landslide but was never allowed to take power — refused to participate in the country’s first polls in 20 years because of rules that would have forced it to expel imprisoned members.
Suu Kyi, a Nobel peace prize winner who has spent most of the last two decades in detention, was released a few days after the vote and now appears to be planning an entrance to the mainstream political process.
NLD spokesman Nyan Win has told AFP that she is “likely” to take part in a forthcoming by-election.
Analysts say the return of the NLD would add to the legitimacy of the army-backed government, which is seeking to shrug off its image as a pariah — but would also increase the relevance of the popular but long-excluded Suu Kyi.
Myanmar’s 2010 election, which brought the army’s political proxies to power after decades of outright military rule, were widely discredited by outside observers who were gloomy over the prospects for change.
But since then there have been tentative signs that the regime is seeking to emerge from isolation and Suu Kyi herself said this week that events over the past year had been “encouraging”.
Obama’s announcement is the most significant move in US policy on Myanmar in many years, after several decades of using sanctions to isolate the country over human rights abuses by generals who refused to shift to democracy.
The foray into Myanmar is another plank in Washington’s campaign to assert itself as a Pacific power and provide a counterbalance to China’s growing diplomatic, economic and military might.
China, which has been rankled by the US initiative which includes stationing Marines in northern Australia, is also likely to be concerned by the foray into Myanmar, its resource-rich ally and southern neighbour.
Obama noted “important steps” taken by Myanmar’s new President Thein Sein, who he will encounter at Saturday’s East Asia Summit, and the Myanmar parliament on easing media restrictions and freeing prisoners.
“Of course, there is far more to be done. We remain concerned about Burma’s closed political system, its treatment of minorities, and holding of political prisoners and its relationship with North Korea,” Obama warned.
“But we want to seize what could be an historic opportunity for progress, making it clear that if Burma continues to travel down the road of democratic reform, it can forge a new relationship with the United States of America.”
As a reward for its conciliatory moves, Myanmar has already won Southeast Asia’s backing to chair its regional bloc in 2014, despite rights groups saying the move was premature and could remove the incentive for more fundamental reform.
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