BUSAN, South Korea (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed cautious optimism on Wednesday that tentative democratic reforms in Myanmar could develop into a movement for change to the benefit of the people of the country.
Clinton is due to arrive in Myanmar later on Wednesday on 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.
Her visit follows a decision by U.S. President Barack Obama this month to open the door to expanded ties with the country sandwiched between China and India.
Obama said he saw “flickers of progress” in Myanmar, which until recently has been seen as a reclusive dictatorship firmly aligned with China.
“I am obviously looking to determine for myself ... what is the intention of the current government with regard to continuing reforms both political and economic,” Clinton told a news conference in South Korea.
“But obviously, we and many other nations are quite hopeful that these ‘flickers of progress’ ... will be ignited into a movement for change that will benefit the people of the country.”
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 underway.
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 broad rehabilitation of Myanmar and may persuade Washington and other western powers to ease sanctions that have driven it deeper into China’s embrace.
Clinton was in South Korea for a development conference before flying to Myanmar’s remote new capital of Naypyitaw where she will hold talks with President Thein Sein, Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin and senior officials from parliament.
Her 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, recently 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.
Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Sugita Katyal