YANGON (Reuters) - From a stall on a street packed with crumbling colonial era buildings in Myanmar’s biggest city, shopkeeper Soe Nai summed up why U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to his long-isolated country was so important.
“It’s the economy,” he said with his arms folded beside his shelves of packets of biscuits and shampoo.
“Myanmar’s economy is bad. If it will help, it’s good.”
Clinton arrived on Wednesday on the first visit to the Southeast Asian country by a U.S. secretary of state since 1955.
Myanmar, also knows as Burma, was once among the richest countries in the region with bountiful harvests and rich resources.
But it drifted into grim poverty over decades of inept military rule following a 1962 coup, isolation and later sanctions imposed by Western powers for rights abuses and the suppression of democracy.
But a new civilian government, which came to power this year, has introduced reforms, and promised more, as it tries to end the isolation and what some leaders see as over-reliance on northern neighbor China.
In talks with leaders in the new capital, Naypyitaw, on Thursday, Clinton held out the prospect of closer ties and an end of U.S. sanctions provided there was real progress on reform.
In Yangon, where Clinton had talks with pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Friday, many residents said they hoped Clinton’s historic trip would help usher in change.
“The government still has problems,” said a vendor of souvenirs outside the gilded Shwedagon Pagoda, where Clinton visited soon after arriving in the port city on Thursday.
The United States could teach Myanmar a thing or two, said the vendor, who declined to be identified.
“We are primary school students of democracy, in primary one, or primary two. They have got a bachelor of democracy. So it’s a good thing.”
Clinton’s visit was given only brief coverage in state-run media on Thursday but it was splashed across pages on Friday.
“U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is the most significant visitor to Myanmar in about 50 years,” Chit Maung, chief editor of the News Watch weekly private journal, said in an editorial.
“As a foreign minister of a democratic nation, where human rights fully prevail, she will find that there is a big room for improvement in Myanmar when it comes to democratic reforms.”
Myanmar’s media was until recently under tight restrictions but regulations have been loosened significantly since June.
Journals ran scores of photographs and reports about the visit and about Clinton herself. Some weeklies published special supplements.
The mouthpiece of the former junta, the New Light of Myanmar newspaper, ran a detailed account of Clinton’s Thursday meeting with President Thein Sein, who analysts say has been driving the reforms. It quoted Thein Sein as saying Myanmar’s poverty rate was 26 percent.
Despite some fears the reforms could stall or be rolled back, the changes have brought an unfamiliar optimism.
“The people here have something they haven’t had in decades, and that is hope,” said a foreign diplomat who declined to be identified.
Like many citizens of Myanmar, long used to skirting stifling restrictions on news, taxi driver Ohn Kyaw, 36, said he had heard of Clinton’s visit from foreign, Burmese-language radio broadcasts.
Asked if he had any message for Clinton, Ohn Kyaw made a plea which many of his fellow citizens would no doubt echo:
“Please pressure the government to carry out genuine democratic reforms quickly and please give the country more assistance.”
Editing by Robert Birsel