Hillary Clinton has clocked hundreds of thousands of miles as Secretary of State and First Lady--and met most of the globe's political luminaries along the way. But on Thursday, Clinton logged a pair of new landmarks in her globe-trotting career, making her first visit to the Asian nation of Myanmar, and holding her first meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi, the formerly imprisoned Burmese opposition political leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate. In past statements, both Clinton and President Barack Obama have cited Suu Kyi as an inspiration.
Clinton--the first American Secretary of State to visit the country also known as Burma since 1955--came at Suu Kyi's urging to offer cautious encouragement for tentative political reforms enacted in Myanmar's long-standing military dictatorship. Among those reforms were presidential elections earlier this year, as well as the release last year of Suu Kyi from more than two decades of house arrest.
In a rare test of how much political power the opposition leader may be permitted to exercise in the country, Suu Kyi held a video Skype chat with the American think tank the Council on Foreign Relations on Wednesday. In the exchange, she announced that she intends to stand for public office in upcoming elections. (You can watch Suu Kyi's remarks to CFR in the video below.)
Clinton kept up a steady schedule of public appearances Thursday, including a barefoot tour of a thousand-year-old Buddhist temple. But she made it clear in her initial round of visits that it would be premature for Washington to lift American sanctions on Myanmar at this point. Instead, she explained she was traveling to the still-isolated South Asian nation of some 55 million people to obtain an on-the-ground assessment for opportunities to further advance political and human rights reforms.
"We're not at the point yet that we can consider lifting sanctions that we have in place because of our ongoing concerns about policies that have to be reversed," Clinton told journalists accompanying her on the trip Thursday, according to a transcript provided by the State Department. "But any steps that the government takes will be carefully considered and will be, as I said, matched because we want to see political and economic reform take hold."
"We know more needs to be done, however, and we think that we have to wait to make sure that this commitment is real," she added. "So we're not only talking to senior members of the government, but we're talking to civil society members, we're talking to members of the political opposition, we're talking to representatives of ethnic minorities, because we want to be sure that we have as full a picture as possible."
Asia hands said that in addition to its stated aims, Clinton's visit also serves a key strategic aim for the United States: to try to extend American influence with a regional players that has long cultivated close ties with China and North Korea. Washington is pressing Myanmar leaders to "halt purchases of missile technology" from North Korea, the Tribune News services reported Thursday. And a Burmese opposition group alleged last year that Myanmar's military junta has secretly cooperated in the past with North Korea on a nuclear program.
The Burma trip also offered Washington's top diplomat a rare look inside a country that American officials acknowledge they know little about, as well as a brief spot of exotic sightseeing between high-level diplomatic meetings.
On one such visit Thursday, to the ancient Buddhist shrine, Clinton's diplomatic entourage and security detail were obliged to show a bit more sartorial flexibility than they are perhaps used to displaying in the gray halls of Foggy Bottom.
"U.S. security went barefoot on Thursday as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton toured one of Myanmar's most revered shrines, a towering golden pagoda that is the symbol of a country seeking fresh rapprochement with the West," Reuters' Andrew Quinn wrote.
A gathered crowd of locals and tourists applauded as Clinton, flanked by "her entire staff of diplomats, advisers and the traveling press, all shuffl[ed] shoe-less past Buddha statues decorated with neon halos and stalked by feral cats," Quinn noted, adding that American officials later "handed out moistened towelettes" so the visiting American VIPs could wash their feet.
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