YANGON (Reuters) - It wasn’t exactly Nixon in China, but Hillary Clinton’s visit to Myanmar this week had that slight touch of the surreal that sometimes marks the beginning of unexpected diplomatic change.
First, it had to be color coordinated.
Officials traveling with Clinton are always given instructions by the State Department on accompanying the secretary of state, but this time they came with an added set of suggestions on what not to wear for the first high-level U.S. mission to Myanmar in more than 50 years.
Blacks, whites and pinks were out. Rust and saffron were discouraged. Those of us meeting at the Washington-area airbase to get on Clinton’s plane on Monday traded notes: were blues ok? What if black is all you have?
The mysterious list of ins-and-outs for Myanmar fashion was never fully explained, although an official later said it appeared to be an effort to avoid the traditional colors of mourning, or those associated with Buddhist monks, who have protested against the government.
Clinton, bounding off the plane in Myanmar’s tiny capital airport, went for a pink blazer anyway.
And the Myanmar officials meeting her - the first U.S. secretary of state to set foot in the country formerly known as Burma in more than 50 years - showed up in white, a sign of how sketchy the U.S. intelligence is about a nation long known as one of the most reclusive and repressive in Southeast Asia.
Lack of hard information was a recurring theme during Clinton’s three-day trip, which took us from the country’s new but deserted capital of Naypyitaw to the faded lakeside villa in Yangon where veteran pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi spent much of the past two decades under house arrest before being released last November.
While Clinton’s advisers have made repeated trips to Myanmar over the past two years amid signs military rulers were tentatively exploring a transition to civilian leadership, few claim deep knowledge about the inner workings of a country surpassed only by North Korea for isolation.
The visit marked a possible break-out moment, recalling U.S. President Richard Nixon’s visit to Maoist China in 1972 that ended decades of estrangement between Washington and Beijing.
And it had similar challenges.
Blackberries, that essential Washington tool, were useless. Officials were opaque and translation a challenge. And the United States had few benchmarks for judging the sincerity of a political reform campaign that even Clinton admitted was gaining steam with surprising speed.
“Much of this is speculative. We can only imagine what lies behind, at a fundamental level, this effort and I think that also is one of the reasons why we’re cautious and careful and we want to take this in an incremental way,” one senior U.S. official traveling with Clinton said.
Naypyitaw itself, carved out of the bush during the past decade allegedly on the orders of military generals advised by soothsayers, was unlike any other capital that Clinton has visited during her tenure as America’s top diplomat.
In a city of few people and even fewer cars, uniformed police stood at attention at most intersections, hands held high to stop nonexistent traffic on brand new boulevards punctuated by government construction sites.
At the foreign ministry - relatively modest given Myanmar’s hermetic nature - functionaries peeked as the U.S. entourage arrived to launch the official talks. Journalists were ushered into a holding room furnished with a group of overstuffed easy chairs lined up in rows and scarcely an electrical outlet to be found.
Clinton’s next stop was the presidential complex, where she met the former general who now heads Myanmar’s nominally civilian government, Thein Sein.
The trip there was a breeze along a 20-lane highway without another vehicle in sight. The motorcade approached the presidential palace, a hugely overgrown golf clubhouse conjured out of marble and enormous chandeliers, by bridge over a moat. Security was tight, as were the smiles, although Sein’s wife did show up for lunch and waved jauntily to journalists as the convoy departed.
Clinton got a different picture of Myanmar at her next step in Yangon, the commercial city formerly known as Rangoon. Here there were cars and people, although few appeared to know that it was the U.S. secretary of state whizzing by.
Clinton - with security and journalists in tow - went barefoot at the famous Shwedagon Pagoda and rang a bell with a giant wooden mallet as onlookers cheered. It was the type of public diplomacy that is Clinton’s forte as a former politician, although many of those snapping her photo were tourists and she had little direct contact with local Burmese.
She did connect with the one person she had long aimed to meet: Aung San Suu Kyi. Over the course of two days, the pair met and appeared to form a fast friendship, one that could be important as Washington seeks to deepen its understanding of Myanmar and the future of democratic reform.
As U.S. officials described it, their conversation ranged from the sublime (Suu Kyi asking Clinton for advice on relaunching her career in electoral politics) to the ridiculous (Clinton presenting Suu Kyi’s dog with a dog bowl and a chew toy).
At their first face-to-face meeting, Clinton appeared wearing a white, Asian style blouse with her hair pulled back in a ponytail. When Suu Kyi arrived, she was also in a white blouse and sporting a matching hairstyle.
U.S. officials said the coordinated outfits were completely coincidental. But they underscored the bizarre blossoming of U.S. relations with Myanmar, where both Suu Kyi and Clinton hope democracy will soon be in fashion.
Editing by Eric Beech