Clinton to become first U.S. secretary of state to visit Burma in 50 years

BALI, Indonesia — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will visit Burma next month, in a thawing of diplomatic ties between the United States and the Southeast Asian nation whose strong-arm government has outraged the West.

The two-day trip, starting Dec. 1, would mark the first visit by a U.S. secretary of state in 50 years.

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President Obama says Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will travel to Burma as the U.S. looks to seize what could be an historic opportunity for progress in the repressed country. (Nov. 18)

President Obama says Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will travel to Burma as the U.S. looks to seize what could be an historic opportunity for progress in the repressed country. (Nov. 18)

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President Obama made the announcement Friday shortly after he began a series of meetings here with Southeast Asian leaders about regional security, including disaster relief. Obama is the first U.S. president to participate in a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), whose chairmanship recently was awarded to Burma, also known as Myanmar. The main summit meetings will take place on Saturday.

Burma’s military rulers, who have held power since a 1962 coup, have taken a hard anti-democratic line, cracking down on opposition leaders including Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who had been under house arrest for years.

But she was freed last year, and hundreds of other political prisoners have been released since then, suggesting that Burma might be signaling an opening to the West as a hedge in its relationship with China.

At the urging of the United States, Burmese President Thein Sein recently began talks with Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy.

Her party decided Friday to rejoin politics and register for future elections in view of the government’s overtures. The NLD’s decision to register again officially as a political party was reached unanimously in a meeting of senior members from across Burma, the Associated Press reported. Among the members who spoke in favor of reentering Burmese politics was Suu Kyi.

“Personally I am for re-registration,” Suu Kyi told NLD delegates at the party headquarters in Rangoon, AP reported.

The NLD refused to register last year because of a government restriction that barred Suu Kyi from running for office, and the party boycotted Burma’s November 2010 elections. The new government that took office after the elections lifted the restriction this year.

NLD spokesman Nyan Win said Suu Kyi likely would run for office, AP reported. He said the party would file registration papers with the Election Commission as soon “as soon possible.”

The NLD decisively won a 1990 general election, but the ruling junta refused to honor the results and placed Suu Kyi under house arrest for most of the next two decades.

Among its other recent overtures, the new government has created a human rights commission, lifted media restrictions and proposed a new labor organization to represent the rights of workers, senior Obama administration officials said.

Burma also suspended work on a controversial Chinese-sponsored dam on a legendary river inside the country, the officials said.

In his remarks, Obama said he called Suu Kyi on Thursday night from Air Force One as he flew into Bali, and she welcomed Clinton’s visit. Obama said he has seen “flickers of progress” in recent weeks from Thein Sein, whom Obama saw during the ASEAN meeting Friday.

“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 said. “But we want to seize what could be an historic opportunity for progress, and make 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.”

On her trip, Secretary Clinton will press Burma to pursue more reforms and assess how the United States can help “begin a new chapter between our countries,” Obama said.

The president arrived in Bali on the final leg of his nine-day Asia-Pacific tour, during which he has aimed to reestablish the United States as a leader on economics and security in the region. The trip has been marked by tension with China as Obama has called on Beijing to “play by the rules” on international trade and in disputes involving military confrontations in the South China Sea and elsewhere.

Burma is located between India and China and has long had strong bilateral relations with Beijing. But the United States has interpreted the country’s recent actions as signals that Burma’s rulers are interested in improving their ties with the West.

In 2009, Obama asked Clinton to initiate a review of U.S. policy toward Burma, one senior White House official said.

“We came to conclusion that a policy of sanctions-only was not addressing our strategic interests,” the official added. At that point, the administration began trying to open a dialogue with the government and Suu Kyi.

During Obama’s phone conversation with the Nobel winner, which lasted 20 minutes, they discussed the importance of reconciliation and how to stop violence in ethnic regions. There was also a lighter moment when Suu Kyi asked how Obama’s dog Bo was doing.

In a speech to Australia’s Parliament on Thursday before heading to Bali, Obama said the United States will lead in Asia based on the principle that there are universal human rights, including freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion and the freedom of citizens to choose their own leaders.

“They stir in every soul, as we’ve seen in the democracies that have succeeded here in Asia,” Obama said. “Other models have been tried and they have failed — fascism and communism, rule by one man and rule by committee. And they failed for the same simple reason: They ignore the ultimate source of power and legitimacy — the will of the people.”

On Friday, in addition to announcing the Burma visit, Obama met one-on-one with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono; Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh; Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak; and President Benigno Aquino III of the Philippines.

 
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