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In Myanmar, Clinton Tests Waters For Change


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Guy Raz.

Hillary Clinton is visiting Myanmar, the first visit by an American secretary of state in half a century. Also known as Burma, Myanmar has been under international sanctions because of the brutal repression of its military council. Secretary Clinton will meet the leaders of a new civilian government, as well as with democracy activists to see if the generals are now ready to allow political reform.

NPR's Michele Kelemen is traveling with the secretary and sent this report.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Officials from Myanmar's foreign ministry greeted Clinton with little fanfare as her plane touched down in Naypyidaw, the country's new capital. There was a huge billboard on the tarmac, but that one was offering warm greetings to the prime minister of Belarus, who's also coming here this week.

Before arriving, Clinton told reporters that she wants to test the waters to determine for herself what the current government in Naypyidaw intends to do.


SECRETARY HILLARY CLINTON: We and many other nations are quite hopeful that these flickers of progress, as President Obama called them, will be ignited into a movement for change that will benefit the people of the country.

KELEMEN: Her aides say she came with some suggestions and some incentives, though the U.S. is likely to lift sanctions any time soon. The U.S. has been guided by a key opposition figure in Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, who told the Council on Foreign Relations in a Skype call today that the government must do more to get out from under U.S. sanctions.


AUNG SAN SUU KYI: We've always said that the best way to get sanctions lifted in Burma is to meet the conditions that was set by the Congress when sanctions were imposed. So if these conditions are met, then the time would have come for sanctions to be relaxed.

KELEMEN: Suu Kyi's party recently registered for elections. And she now says she will run for parliament, signaling she has some confidence in the political reforms taking place. She spent decades under house arrest after her party won elections in 1990 and was subsequently banned by the ruling military junta.

It's not clear why the new leader of Myanmar, Thein Sein, has been meeting Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as easing censorship and improving election and labor laws. Some analysts say Myanmar wants to rely less on its big neighbor, China. Aung Din, who runs the U.S. Campaign for Burma, says China has provided Myanmar international diplomatic cover, weapons and big investments but at much too high a price.

AUNG DIN: They have to allow Chinese to take all the natural - our forests and, you know, natural - our rubies and jades and everything from the country. They have to allow significant number of Chinese population to settle in Burma. So, the price that they are giving is too much.

KELEMEN: One U.S. official has another theory about the nascent changes taking place in the country, that the new president traveled abroad while he was prime minister and has seen how Myanmar's development is lagging far behind its Asian neighbors.

Secretary Clinton will have to play a delicate balancing act, encouraging Thein Sein's reforms while also raising some tough issues with him. She's calling on Myanmar to release more political prisoners and stop the military from using rape as a weapon of war in the ethnic conflicts that have raged in Myanmar for decades.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Naypyidaw, Myanmar. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.