Clinton’s plane was met by a large contingent of Burmese officials, apparently eager to engage with the United States and demonstrate their sincerity about progress after decades of economic sanctions and international criticism over Burma’s crackdown on democratic activists, violence against ethnic minorities and violations of human rights.
“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 shortly before her arrival. “We and many other nations are quite hopeful that these flickers of progress . . . will be ignited into a movement for change.”
Clinton’s visit comes as Burma, also known as Myanmar, appears poised for historic changes — an opening the Obama administration is seeking to encourage through incentives. The arrival of the chief U.S. diplomat is itself the largest reward thus far, lending the reclusive country the international prestige and recognition its leaders crave.
Clinton’s advisers declined to discuss what additional incentives the secretary was bringing on this trip, saying those would depend on her sense in meetings of the government’s willingness to continue reforms.
“We are actually deeply realistic for what can be expected. There have been a number of failed attempts at reform, over decades,” said a senior administration official who was not authorized to be quoted by name. “We are mindful of the risks, and we will be very careful as we go forward.”
The two biggest signs of sincerity that U.S. officials say they are looking for are the release of all political prisoners and an end to the war between government troops and ethnic minorities.
Since October, Burma has released 200 political prisoners. But activists say at least 1,600 remain imprisoned, including some top opposition leaders. Some government officials have blamed the lack of further releases on recent political protests.
“The president has this issue in his mind,” Ko Ko Hlaing, chief political adviser to President Thein Sein, said in an e-mail interview. “I think the next batch of release may be depend upon how the released persons are doing with politics. If their activities are going well in accordance with national reconciliation efforts, I think it will make better condition for next amnesty.”
On ethnic violence, the adviser said, negotiations are taking place. Human rights advocates point out, however, that violent clashes with soldiers occurred as recently as last week.