Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has arrived in Burma on the first top-level US visit for half a century, seeking to encourage a “movement for change” in the military-dominated nation.
Clinton and her entourage flew into a little-used airport in Naypyidaw, the remote city where Burma’s generals abruptly moved their capital in 2005, in a stark test of US efforts to engage the strategic but long-isolated country.
Burma has surprised observers with a series of reformist moves in the past year including releasing opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest and nominally ending decades of military rule.
President Barack Obama spoke of “flickers” of hope when he personally announced Clinton’s trip during a recent visit to Asia.
But his administration has sought to keep expectations low, mindful of other false dawns in a country where the generals have ruled with an iron fist since 1962.
During a stop in South Korea, Clinton said the United States and other nations hoped that the flickers “will be ignited into a movement for change that will benefit the people of the country”.
Clinton told reporters that she would look to “determine for myself what is the intention of the current government with respect to continuing reforms, both political and economic”.
On Thursday Clinton will meet President Thein Sein, a former general now at the vanguard of reforms, before travelling to the main city Rangoon for talks with Suu Kyi, whose views hold great sway in Washington.
Clinton is expected to urge Burma to free all political prisoners, estimated by activists to number between 500 and more than 1,600.
She is also likely to press the so-called civilian government to end long-running ethnic conflicts that have displaced thousands of people.
Clinton’s dramatic arrival saw her fly over mountainous jungle and remote villages before descending into the showcase capital, an incongruous mix of glistening pagodas, gargantuan government buildings and scattered farmland.
Villagers clad in sarongs working their fields with water buffaloes looked up to the sky as Clinton’s jet – emblazoned on the side with United States of America – thundered overhead.
Clinton was welcomed by a collection of government officials and the top US diplomat based in Rangoon before heading for her hotel.
Hundreds of police were deployed even though there is rarely much traffic in the purpose-built city, occasionally saluting the motorcade as it sped past.
Senior administration officials said Clinton would not announce an end to sweeping economic sanctions on Burma during her trip, a step that would require approval by Congress.
But prominent US diplomats rarely undertake such high-profile visits without being ready to offer incentives for further action.
A State Department official travelling with Clinton said he expected Burma would move forward on one key US concern – allegations of past military co-operation with nuclear-armed North Korea.
The official said he was not convinced of defectors’ accounts of nuclear co-operation between the countries and indicated that Burma may agree to sign an agreement with the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency to ensure that it is not pursuing atomic arms.
“We’ve looked at this fairly carefully and we do not see signs of a substantial effort at this time” he said, playing down the allegations of Burma’s nuclear ambitions.
The senior official said the US was more concerned about North Korean exports of missile technology to Burma, which violate UN sanctions on Pyongyang.