Charles Dharapak, Associated Press
BALI, Indonesia — 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 early next month, 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 on house arrest by the nation's former military dictators but is now in talks with the new civilian government about reforming the country.
The two spoke by phone on 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 U.S. 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.
Officials said Clinton would travel to Myanmar Dec. 1.
The move came as he deepened ties with Asia, appealing to nations large and small for help with the American security agenda, and anxious to build some regional political balance to the rising might of China. He was trying to prod for some progress over the hotly contested South China Sea, one of the most vital shipping channels in the world.
A U.S. opening with Myanmar would also contribute to Obama's rebalancing goals, as Burma's military leaders for long had close ties to China. Beijing has poured billions of dollars of investment into Myanmar to operate mines, extract timber and build oil and gas pipelines. China has also been a staunch supporter of the country's politically isolated government and is Myanmar's second-biggest trading partner after Thailand.
But Myanmar has shown wariness of its imposing neighbor in recent months. In late September, the government of Myanmar president Thein Sein suspended a controversial $3.6 billion China-built hydropower dam project in northern Kachin State because it was "against the will of the people." The dam had been denounced by ethnic activists and environmentalists
Initial reaction to Obama's announcement from human rights and democracy movement officials was welcoming.
"The visit clearly demonstrates that United States is stepping up its engagement policy. It is better to see Myanmar's political situation on the ground rather than watch from a distance, We welcome the visit," said Aung Thein, a prominent lawyer and a member of Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party.
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."
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