— Burma seemed poised for a historic shift Friday as dissident leader Aung San Suu Kyi ended her long boycott of the country’s authoritarian political system and President Obama announced plans to send the U.S. secretary of state there for the first time in half a century.

The back-to-back announcements were the clearest sign yet of how seriously the Obama administration and Suu Kyi — the standard-bearer of Burma’s long-
persecuted democracy movement — are taking the political changes instituted by the country’s leaders.

“After years of darkness, we’ve seen flickers of progress,” Obama said from Indonesia, where he was attending a summit with Asian leaders, who anointed Burma the next chair of their regional grouping.

The nominally civilian government of President Thein Sein — who, like many members of the leadership, is a former military officer — has released some political prisoners, allowed greater freedom for the media and outlined an agenda of political and economic opening. The shifts this year come as the leaders of Burma, also known as Myanmar, seem to be reevaluating their regional allegiances. As they make overtures to the United States, they are showing increasing concern about the power and assertiveness of longtime ally China.

China issued a veiled warning after Obama’s announcement that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton would visit Burma on Dec. 1 and 2.

“We are willing to see the U.S. and other Western countries improve contacts with Myanmar and make better relations,” said Liu Weimin, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman in Beijing. “At the same time, we hope that both the domestic and foreign policies of Myanmar are conducive for the peace and stability of Myanmar.”

In making his decision, Obama consulted with Suu Kyi during a 20-minute phone call while en route to Indonesia — the first conversation between them. According to senior administration officials, the two compared thoughts on the new leadership’s commitment to reform in a country that has seen five decades of repressive military rule, isolation from the West and ethnic violence.

A gamble by Suu Kyi

For Suu Kyi, a 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, the decision to work with the government is a gamble fraught with national and personal consequences. Burma seemed similarly poised for reform two decades ago when her party decisively won a 1990 general election. Instead, the ruling military junta barred Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy from power and kept her under house arrest for most of the next two decades.

In an interview Thursday with the Telegraph, a British newspaper, Suu Kyi voiced optimism about the measures undertaken by the new government. “There has been change, not sufficient yet but we’ll get there,” she said. “I hope it will come along steadily and at a fast enough pace to make it credible. With the right kind of institutions, starting with the rule of law, Burma could progress very quickly.”

In her conversation with Obama, Suu Kyi endorsed his intention to send Clinton to Burma as a way to encourage the government to build on its actions.

The decision shocked Burmese exiles and democracy activists in Washington, including many who worry that the visit could be too large a gesture, too soon.

“It gives them prestige, legitimacy, implies in part that this is a reformist government when there’s still such a long way to go,” said Mike Mitchell, a longtime supporter of the Burmese democracy movement.

“This isn’t a revolution like in Tunisia or Egypt,” he said. “It’s been a series of small steps by a regime that until seven months ago was one of the most ostracized in the world, and for good reason.”

Others interpreted the visit as part of the Obama administration’s pivot toward Asia to counterbalance China’s rising power and influence in the region.

Burma, wedged between China and India, has relied heavily on China for investment in the face of international sanctions for its human rights violations. But, in recent months, Burmese leaders have shown signs of unease about the relationship, most notably in suspending an unpopular Chinese-funded dam project.

“There is anxiety about how much China will push back or demand concessions because of the cancellation of the dam,” said Aung Din, director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma.

The visit by Clinton could be a chance to capitalize on that emerging rift, but administration officials disputed suggestions that China was a factor.

“This is a decision about Burma, of human rights, and it’s in response to measurable, concrete progress that the Burmese leaders are making,” said one senior administration official traveling with Obama.

Regardless of intention, however, the perception that the United States is playing a power game against China could cause problems, said Michael Green, who was a senior official on the National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration. “We can’t be seen as putting that ahead of our values on human rights and democracy. The other danger is if others in the region, like India or Japan, misinterpret this as a sign that it’s now okay to turn on the spigots of aid to Burma.”

Administration’s outlook

In interviews Friday, U.S. officials emphasized that they wanted to see more from Burma’s leaders, including a full release of political prisoners, an end to the government’s violent repression of ethnic groups and greater transparency in its weapons trade.

“There certainly does seem to be an opening,” Clinton told CNN. “How real it is, how far it goes, we will have to make sure we have a better understanding than we do right now.”

To explain his decision to Capitol Hill, Obama sent officials to brief congressional staff members Friday.

“They said the trip could be an opportunity to get something even bigger, though they weren’t willing to drill down on the specifics of what that was,” said one House staff member, who attended the briefing but was not authorized to speak on record. “I think people are willing to give them a bit of room to offer one-offs, like this visit to see if the reform is real.”

Many members of Congress voiced support for Clinton’s planned visit but echoed Obama’s caveat that more needs to be done.

Burma, the Hill staffer and others noted, still seems far from winning more-permanent gestures, such as the lifting of economic sanctions, which could require congressional approval.

“With this visit, there are some worries and some risk,” said Aung Din, a former student leader who was detained for four years. “There is also hope more will happen, like the release of all those remaining political prisoners.”

Wan reported from Washington.