Clinton To 'Test Waters' In Myanmar

President Obama says his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will visit Myanmar next month, the first such visit in half a century. Relations between the U.S. and Myanmar have been strained during years of rule by a secretive military junta, but its new president has started a process of reform that the U.S. wants to encourage. Michele Kelemen

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In just a couple of weeks, Hillary Clinton is scheduled to become the first secretary of state in half a century to visit Myanmar. For decades, that country, formerly known as Burma, has been ruled by a secretive military council. But this year, its new president has begun reforms that the U.S. wants to encourage, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Before announcing Clinton's trip, President Obama spoke by phone with Nobel Peace Prize laureate and prominent democracy activist, Aung San Suu Kyi, about the reforms taking place in her country.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: After years of darkness, we've seen flickers of progress in these last several weeks. President Thein Sein and the Burmese Parliament have taken important steps on the path toward reform.

KELEMEN: Even Aung San Suu Kyi's party announced today it will register to take part in future elections. President Obama says he's still worried about political prisoners in the country and Myanmar's relationship with North Korea.

OBAMA: But 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.

KELEMEN: Secretary Clinton says she's going to test the waters. David Steinberg, a professor at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, calls it a smart diplomatic move.

DAVID STEINBERG: It's a big deal. I mean, we haven't had anybody of that caliber there since 1962, when the military had a coup and the socialist government came in.

KELEMEN: Myanmar is now one of the poorest nations in Southeast Asia. It's also strategically important, located between China and India. Steinberg says the country's new president has taken positive steps since coming to office, acknowledging Myanmar's problems with corruption, setting up a human rights commission, allowing unions, releasing some political prisoners and easing censorship laws.

STEINBERG: Yes, the elections were flawed, the constitution may not be what we would like to see. At the same time, this is greater progress than there has been in half a century.

KELEMEN: The State Department says it's still too early to talk about lifting sanctions against Myanmar. Sending Clinton is just a first step. The secretary has tried to reassure human rights activists that the U.S. is not changing its policy abruptly and is consulting closely with Aung San Suu Kyi.

In an interview with the BBC, the Burmese activist called Myanmar's president a good listener. Aung San Suu Kyi also says she doesn't like to talk about her own troubled history with Myanmar's military rulers.

AUNG SAN SUU KYI: When I say that it embarrasses me to talk about my sufferings, I'm thinking of others who have suffered more. And in a situation like ours, people have died. And it seems to me that nobody who is still alive has a right to complain.

KELEMEN: She's expected to meet Hillary Clinton when the secretary is in Myanmar, December 1st.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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