WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will test Myanmar’s tentative democratic reforms this week in a high-stakes visit that could mark the resource-rich Asian nation’s return to the world stage after more than 50 years of political isolation.
Clinton’s trip to Myanmar follows a decision by U.S. President Barack Obama this month to open the door to expanded ties, saying he saw “flickers of progress” in a country until recently seen as a reclusive dictatorship firmly aligned with its powerful northern neighbor, China.
Clinton will be the first U.S. secretary of state to visit Myanmar -- also known as Burma -- since the military seized power in 1962, and diplomats are looking at her access and the tone of her reception as they assess the changes under way.
She will meet twice with pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent 15 of the last 21 years in detention after leading a mass popular uprising that was crushed by the army.
The visit could herald a broader rehabilitation of Myanmar, which is bordered by India, Bangladesh, China, Laos and Thailand. It may persuade Washington and other western powers to ease sanctions that have driven the country deeper into Beijing’s embrace.
Clinton departed on Monday, headed first to a development conference in South Korea before flying to Myanmar’s remote new capital of Naypyitaw on Wednesday where she will hold talks with President Thein Sein, Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin and senior officials from parliament.
On Thursday, Clinton will travel to the main city of Yangon where she will hold the first of her meetings with Suu Kyi, according to sources in Myanmar.
Suu Kyi, a Nobel peace laureate, has endorsed Clinton’s visit and plans to run in a parliamentary by-election later this year, highlighting gradual moves toward democracy.
Clinton will tour Yangon’s dazzling gold-domed Shwedagon Pagoda, one of Myanmar’s most revered historical sites and a frequent focus for political activists in the past.
U.S. officials say she will meet other civil society leaders and representatives of ethnic minority groups which have long battled the government. She will head home on Friday to weigh possible further steps, including easing U.S. sanctions in place since 1988 when the military waged a bloody crackdown on student-led protests.
Myanmar and U.S. officials have disclosed few details of Clinton’s schedule, reflecting sensitivities over a trip which analysts say amounts to a diplomatic gamble that Myanmar’s political reforms are genuine.
Clinton -- the first U.S. secretary of state to visit Myanmar since John Foster Dulles made the trip in 1955 -- could risk endorsing Myanmar’s new leadership prematurely if the reforms are reversed and restrictions reimposed on Suu Kyi.
While her schedule does not include any “town hall” style meetings that have featured on other overseas trips, Clinton is expected to meet local people at various stops, giving her a chance to practice the direct personal diplomacy that has become her trademark.
For more than a week, plainclothes U.S. security personnel have been inspecting possible locations Clinton may visit, including the lakeside home of Suu Kyi in Yangon and a shelter for patients with HIV/AIDS run by supporters of her National League for Democracy party, witnesses said.
In remarks earlier this month, Clinton said Washington was ready to be a partner for Myanmar but only if its new military-backed civilian government carries through on promises to deepen political reforms.
“We’d like to see more political prisoners released. We would like to see a real political process and real elections. We’d like to see an end to the conflicts, particularly the terrible conflicts with ethnic minorities. But we think there’s an opportunity and we want to test it,” Clinton said.
“We’re not ending sanctions. We are not making any abrupt changes. We have to do some more fact finding, and that’s part of my trip,” she told Fox News.
Clinton’s trip caps a period of rapid change in Myanmar after the military handed power to a nominally civilian government following elections last November.
Since then, the new government has called for peace with ethnic minority groups, displayed some tolerance of criticism, suspended an unpopular Chinese-funded dam project, freed about 230 political prisoners and reached out to Suu Kyi
But political analysts say Myanmar’s military remains strong behind the scenes, leading some analysts to question whether the generals are truly ready to cede power.
The president, Thein Sein, is a former junta member and parliament is packed with army-backed candidates. The military also continues to flex its muscles in some restive ethnic regions such as northern Kachin state, where sporadic fighting between the army and the Kachin Independence Army has continued since June despite progress in talks with other ethnic groups.
“Given the Burmese government’s long history of authoritarian rule and systematic violations of human rights, vigilance is in order,” Suzanne DiMaggio, vice president for global policy at the Asia Society, wrote in a commentary.
“But this is not the time to sit back, fold our arms, and wait for change to unfold. How Burma’s transition plays out is a story that hasn’t been written yet.”
Clinton’s Myanmar visit looked certain to raise concern in China as part of an increasingly assertive U.S. stance in Asia.
Both Obama and Clinton recently made major diplomatic tours in the region, signaling both to longtime U.S. allies and to Beijing that the United States is not ready to take a back seat to China’s political and economic influence.
Obama, unveiling a “pivot” in U.S. policy toward Asia as wars wind down in Iraq and Afghanistan, announced a new de facto U.S. military base in Australia and a new willingness to push back against China particularly in Southeast Asia where territorial disputes have caused tension.
Myanmar -- until recently seen as an economic and political satellite of China -- could be an important part of the puzzle.
Sino-Myanmar economic ties are booming with some $12.3 billion in Chinese investment in the country. But Myanmar’s decision in September to shelve the China-backed $3.6 billion dam project has highlighted strains in the relationship that Clinton may hope to exploit.
“It reinforces Burma’s new willingness to stand a little apart from China, but that should not be overdone. All in all, it’s a great breath of fresh air after more than twenty years of policy stalemate,” said Douglas Paal, an Asia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
additional reporting by Aung Hla Tun in Yangon