SIEM REAP, Cambodia — Two days after President Obama formally lifted prohibitions on U.S. investment in Burma, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met with Burmese President Thein Sein, marking another step in the administration’s rapid normalization of relations with the formerly isolated country.
Friday’s meeting came as Clinton was in Cambodia leading a delegation of more than 70 U.S. business leaders to a conference on U.S. investment in Southeast Asia — and where she announced initiatives aimed at strengthening economic ties with a region that represents a market of 580 million people. The delegation, which includes representatives from Google, General Electric and FedEx, is heading to the Burmese capital this weekend.
“I’m sending a very distinguished delegation to see you,” Clinton said as she and Thein Sein shook hands in the courtyard outside a hotel here before their 45-minute meeting. “But I wanted them all to hear from you tonight about your plans for the economy.”
Although she has devoted much of the trip to the subject of economic investment in the region, Clinton also spoke Friday about the “mutually reinforcing” roles of economics and human rights, which she called a “moral imperative.”
“Standing up for workers’ rights and high labor standards is not just the right and moral thing to do, it’s also the smart and strategic thing,” she told a group called the Lower Mekong Initiative Women’s Dialogue. She also talked about empowering women as a way to boost economic growth.
Human rights groups and Burmese democracy activists have remained wary as the United States normalizes relations with a country just emerging from a half-century of repressive military rule. The shift has brought the election of a new Burmese parliament that includes democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest off and on for 15 years until her release in 2010. Hundreds of political prisoners remain jailed.
Clinton and Thein Sein had their first, somewhat awkward, meeting in the Burmese capital last year. Friday’s meeting was different, said a U.S. official who spoke to reporters on the condition of anonymity.
The official said the two were more relaxed this time and talked easily and in detail about a range of issues. Thein Sein spoke of his desire for more investment and to increase production of “value-added” products — exporting not only raw rubber but also tires, for instance. He also discussed ways to improve child and maternal health, the official said.
Clinton, having escorted a number of multibillion-dollar corporations to Thein Sein’s doorstep, used the occasion to raise concerns about the political prisoners, as well as recent reports that Burma has detained 12 U.N. workers, the U.S. official said. Clinton also said the United States was prepared to help Burma, which is also known as Myanmar, with internally displaced people.
“They were really talking seriously about how to take the country forward,” the official said. “It was a conversation between two people really committed to this relationship, committed to a reform agenda, and who have some progress under their belts.”
At a dinner with the U.S. business delegation after the meeting, Thein Sein gave his speech in English.
“Myanmar has lagged behind in development for the past 60 years,” he told the roomful of potential investors. “We are resolute to strive our all-out efforts to achieve recognition and respect from friendly nations as a developed, democratic state.”