US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived in Myanmar yesterday on the first top-level US visit for half a century, seeking to encourage a “movement for change” in the military-dominated nation.
Clinton flew into a little-used airport in Naypyidaw, the remote city where Myanmar’s generals abruptly moved their capital in 2005, in a stark test of US efforts to engage the strategic, but long-isolated country.
Myanmar has surprised observers with a series of reformist moves in the past year, including releasing opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest and nominally ending decades of military rule.
US President Barack Obama personally announced Clinton’s trip during a visit to Asia last month, citing “flickers” of hope. However, his administration has sought to keep expectations low, mindful of other false dawns in Myanmar.
The top US diplomat told reporters that she would look to “determine for myself what is the intention of the current government with respect to continuing reforms, both political and economic.”
Today, Clinton will meet Burmese President Thein Sein, a former general now at the vanguard of reforms, before flying later to Yangon for talks with Aung San Suu Kyi, whose views hold great sway in Washington.
A senior US Department of State official traveling with Clinton who asked not to be named said he expected Myanmar would move forward on a key US concern — allegations of past military cooperation with North Korea.
The official said he was not convinced of defectors’ accounts of nuclear cooperation between the countries, but indicated Myanmar may agree to sign an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency to ensure it is not pursuing atomic weapons.
“We’ve looked at this fairly carefully and we do not see signs of a substantial effort at this time” on nuclear weapons, he said.
The official was blunt about US caution over Myanmar, saying the Obama administration’s engagement policy had been “an abysmal failure” until recently.
He acknowledged the US was largely still in the dark about Myanmar’s internal politics.
China has been the primary supporter of the junta and the military-dominated civilian government that succeeded it after controversial elections last year, but many ordinary citizens are resentful of Beijing’s large economic presence.
Thein Sein stunned observers recently when he bowed to public opposition and stopped a dam that would benefit China.
China’s Global Times newspaper warned yesterday that Beijing would not allow its interests in Myanmar to be “stamped on.”
“This [dam suspension] incident made some believe that Myanmar is showing goodwill to the West at the expense of Chinese interest,” it said.