US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton held landmark talks with Myanmar’s rulers Thursday, saying she was “encouraged” by reform moves from the new regime after decades of repression and isolation.
The top diplomat, sent by President Barack Obama on a delicate mission to encourage change in a nation long distrustful of the West, was also due to meet with famed pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Myanmar President Thein Sein hailed a “new chapter in relations” with Washington during talks at the imposing presidential palace in the remote capital Naypyidaw, decked out with chandeliers and gold-leaf chairs.
Clinton told the former general, who has overseen a series of reforms, that “President Obama and myself are encouraged by the steps that you and your government have taken to provide for your people.”
Myanmar was ruled by the military for decades until elections last year brought a nominally civilian government to power — albeit one with close links to the army.
Later Clinton will head to Yangon, the commercial hub of the country formerly known as Burma, where she will meet Suu Kyi twice — first for dinner, and then for more formal talks on Friday morning.
The Nobel Peace Prize winner holds huge influence in Washington and any easing of US sanctions on Myanmar would almost certainly need her approval.
Suu Kyi, who has held a series of meetings with the regime since her release from house arrest in November, told a conference in Washington via video link on Wednesday that she hoped Clinton’s visit would spur further reform.
“I hope Secretary Clinton’s visit will open the way toward a better relationship”, Suu Kyi said.
“I’ve always been in favour of engagement. I would certainly be very happy to see the United States engaging more with Burma.”
Suu Kyi’s opposition, which boycotted last year’s poll, plans to contest by-elections in a major test of how far the government is ready to accept political reforms.
There are 48 seats up for grabs but no date has been set for a vote yet.
Suu Kyi, who spent the best part of two decades in detention at the hands of the generals, confirmed that she personally planned to stand in the polls.
“I will certainly run for elections when they take place,” she said.
The democracy icon has welcomed signs of change under the new government.
Since taking over, Thein Sein has launched dialogue with Suu Kyi and ethnic minorities with which it is fighting some of the world’s longest-running wars.
But activists say that anywhere between 500 and more than 1,600 political prisoners remain behind bars and that the situation in ethnic areas remains dire.
Aides said Clinton wanted to strike a careful balance — to press Myanmar on persistent concerns over human rights without emboldening hardliners who could argue that reforms have only led to a public lashing by a high-profile guest.
According to US officials, the main focus of her talks with Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin would be Myanmar’s relationship with North Korea, which is under tight UN and US sanctions for pursuing nuclear weapons.
Her aides have, however, played down defectors’ accounts of nuclear cooperation between the two authoritarian countries, saying the top US concern relates to missile technology.
Clinton has repeatedly said that she does not envision an immediate end to sweeping US sanctions on Myanmar, a step that would require approval from a largely sceptical Congress.
But while officials declined to comment on any announcements they may make in Myanmar, the United States has a number of other tools at its disposal such as stepping up development assistance in one of the world’s poorest nations.
The United States could also name a full ambassador to Myanmar. Washington has been represented only by a lower-ranking diplomat as a protest since Myanmar’s 1990 elections, which were overwhelmingly won by Suu Kyi’s party but annulled by the military junta.