U.S. to send Hillary Clinton to Myanmar

18 November 2011

Bali, Indonesia (CNN) -- U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton plans to visit Myanmar next month on a trip that could signal a major change in relations between the two countries.

Clinton will be the first American secretary of state in 50 years to visit Myanmar, a country that the West has long criticized for its hostility toward democracy and its record on human rights.

"Honestly, this is very much unexpected," said Aung Din, executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma. "I just wish the Burmese regime will understand this (as a) serious goodwill gesture." He added that the country should release its political prisoners and discontinue human rights abuses.

President Barack Obama made the announcement Friday after talking with pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was released one year ago after spending 15 of the previous 21 years under house arrest for her opposition to authoritarian rule in the southeast Asian nation.

Clinton's trip is an indication that Myanmar, also known as Burma, has made some progress toward democracy and that the time could be right to forge a new relationship between the nations, the White House said.

"That possibility will depend upon the Burmese government taking more concrete action," Obama said. "If Burma fails to move down the path of reform, it will continue to face sanctions and isolation. But if it seizes this moment, then reconciliation can prevail, and millions of people may get the chance to live with a greater measure of freedom, prosperity and dignity. And that possibility is too important to ignore."

Clinton plans to test whether Myanmar is committed to both economic and political reform, she said Friday.

"There certainly does seem to be an opening," she said. "How real it is, how far it goes -- we will have to make sure we have a better understanding than we do right now."

In a possible sign of progress toward democracy, Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy met Friday and announced that she will run in the next parliamentary elections, as yet unscheduled. The group also decided to re-enter politics.

"NLD has decided to re-register as a political party and will participate in all elections in the future, as there are many demands from our people to do this," said Kyi Toe, the party's information officer.

In Yangon on Monday, Suu Kyi told journalists and diplomats that in addition to her yearnings for political freedom for the country, she "deeply believed that the president (of Myanmar) also wants a change."

Suu Kyi was was awarded the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize for her nonviolent struggle for democracy and human rights.

Since her release, Suu Kyi has met repeatedly with Myanmar's President Thein Sein and the country's minister for labor and for social welfare, relief and resettlement, Aung Kyi. Obama planned to see Sein at a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on Friday; he announced Clinton's visit to Myanmar while traveling from Australia to Indonesia to attend the ASEAN economic summit.

The country's military-controlled government has won limited praise from international human rights groups for making some progress toward political freedoms in the past year. It released dozens of political prisoners last month as part of a mass amnesty that will eventually free 6,300 prisoners, according to the government -- a key demand of Suu Kyi and a priority for the West.

Myanmar, ruled by generals since 1962, denied for decades that political prisoners even existed.

In addition, the head of state censorship in Myanmar called last month for greater press freedoms and for his own office to be shut down, and the country's foreign minister, Wunna Maung Lwin, held a rare meeting with U.S. officials in Washington in September.

Also in September, the government suspended a controversial Chinese-backed dam project on the Irrawaddy River, which runs through the center of the country, citing environmental and social concerns. The project would have displaced 15,000 people and been built in a geologically unstable area, while providing power to neighboring China.

Human Rights Watch reported this month that Sein's administration has passed laws protecting basic human rights. Suu Kyi has also been given freedom to travel and access to the international media, the group reported. But the government's tight grip on the country -- particularly at the local level -- has not relaxed, Human Rights Watch reported.

The country continues to hold hundreds of political prisoners, and it has not moved to repeal repressive laws that limit free speech and assembly, the group said.

"With this backdrop, it is too early to know whether the government's change of tone and talk of reform is cynical window-dressing or evidence that significant change will come to the country," the group wrote in a briefing paper.

Myanmar has been designated to chair the ASEAN summit in 2014, the Indonesian foreign minister said Thursday. It is one of 10 member countries of ASEAN, or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which works to promote economic growth and peace and stability in the region.

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