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Clinton to travel to Myanmar: Obama

November 18, 2011

US President Barack Obama stands with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton as he announces that she will travel to Myanmar, on the sidelines of the ASEAN and East Asia summit in Nusa Dua, on the island of Bali, Indonesia, Friday, Nov. 18, 2011.—AP Photo

BALI: Detecting “flickers of progress” in the long-shunned nation of Myanmar, President Barack Obama announced Friday that he will send Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to the repressed country next month, making her the first official in her position to visit in more than 50 years.

“We want to seize what could be an historic opportunity for progress and make it clear that if Burma continues to travel down the road of democratic reform, it can forge a new relationship with the United States of America,” Obama said Friday during his diplomatic mission to Southeast Asia.

In deepening his engagement with Myanmar, also known as Burma, the president first sought assurances from democracy leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. She spent 15 years in house arrest by the nation’s former military dictators but is now talking with the new civilian government about reforming the country.

The two spoke by phone Thursday night while Obama was flying to Bali on Air Force One, a senior administration official said.

The administration sees Clinton’s visit as a sign of success for Obama’s policy on Myanmar, which was outlined in 2009 and focused on punishments and incentives to get the country’s former military rulers to improve dire human rights conditions. The US imposed new sanctions on Myanmar but made clear it was open to better relations if the situation changed.

“After years of darkness, we’ve seen flickers of progress in these last several weeks,” Obama declared Friday.

Still, Obama said he has deep concerns about Myanmar’s human rights record, treatment of ethnic minorities and closed nature of its society. Clinton’s mission is to explore what the United States can do to support progress on political reform, individual rights and national reconciliation, the official said.

Benjamin Zawacki, Amnesty International’s Southeast Asia researcher, welcomed the news of Clinton’s visit as an opportunity to turn up the pressure on the government to address human rights abuses.

“We’ve been arguing a long time that political engagement and political pressure are not mutually exclusive,” Zawacki told The Associated Press, adding that Clinton “should not miss the opportunity in this historic visit to pressure the government and speak very clearly that the human rights violations taking place there need to stop.”

Myanmar, a former breadbasket of Southeast Asia, has suffered not just repressive government but poor economic management during nearly 50 years of military rule.

It is subject to wide-ranging trade, economic and political sanctions from the US and other Western nations, enforced in response to brutal crackdowns on pro-democracy protesters in 1988 and 2007 and its refusal to hand power to pro-democracy leader Suu Kyi’s party after the 1990 elections.

Now Myanmar’s nominally civilian government, which took power in March, has declared its intention to liberalize the hard-line policies of the junta that preceded it.

It has taken some fledgling steps, such as easing censorship, legalizing labor unions, suspending an unpopular, China-backed dam project and working with Suu Kyi.

Obama will see Burma’s president, Thein Sein, on Friday during a summit of Southeast Asian nations.