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Clinton Tests Myanmar's Commitment To Change

Dec 2, 2011
Originally published on December 2, 2011 10:30 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

For decades, there wasn't much reason for optimism about Myanmar, the country also known as Burma. It's run by generals who have fueled ethnic conflicts and led brutal crackdowns on democracy activists, students, even monks. But the new nominally civilian president seems to be trying to change that.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spent two days in Myanmar to test the government's commitment to reforms, and also to compare notes with the prominent democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi. NPR's Michele Kelemen has more.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: On her way to Myanmar, Secretary Clinton watched a film about Aung San Suu Kyi. Today, she was invited into Suu Kyi's lakeside home, a place that was also her prison for many years.

SECRETARY HILLARY CLINTON: And the house looks wonderful. I had a little bit of a preview about how much work was done...

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KELEMEN: Secretary Clinton met Suu Kyi's doctor, her guards and other staff, and said she knows how important it is to have dedicated people around. They strolled through Suu Kyi's garden, and then the Nobel laureate spoke about her hopes for democratic reforms in the country and a better relationship with the U.S.

AUNG SAN SUU KYI: If we go forward together, I'm confident that there will be no turning back from the road towards democracy. We are not on that road yet, but we hope to get there as soon as possible with the help and understanding of our friends.

KELEMEN: Aung San Suu Kyi has been advising the U.S. on what steps it could take to support President Thein Sein for the decisions he's made to ease censorship, improve election laws, and for his promises to try to promote peace efforts in the ethnic conflicts that have raged here for decades.

Clinton was clearly moved by her visit to Suu Kyi's house and sat down with NPR to talk about her impressions.

CLINTON: It was an overwhelming personal experience for me because I've admired her for so long. And to see where she was unjustly imprisoned, she sacrificed so much, and now she has perhaps another chance to try to see the, you know, democracy that she's struggled for and sacrificed for come to reality.

KELEMEN: She's now making this transition from democracy activist to politician running for election. Have you given her some advice on, you know, what politics is all about?

CLINTON: Oh, I think she certainly understands that it's a rough-and-tumble experience, but we did talk about the difficulties of, you know, not only standing for election, but being elected and having to make compromises. And that would be true in any political process. I mean, democracy really has to be constantly oiled by, you know, compromise. And a lot of people think that that somehow is less than principled.

But people come into elective offices with many different experiences and ideologies, and, you know, you have to work together. She's fully aware of all of that. But I think it will still be something quite new and challenging for her.

KELEMEN: Now, you've met Thein Sein, the president. She seems to have confidence enough in him. But do you think he can deliver? I mean, he has a government that has a lot of people in it that don't like what he's doing.

CLINTON: We're going to be watching. I mean, that's our measurement, is what actually happens - not what is promised or not what is intended, but whether it's delivered. And we discussed at some length when I met with him about what the next steps needed to be. And, you know, releasing all political prisoners, setting a date for the elections and ensuring that they are free, fair and credible, having a really comprehensive, well-designed effort to resolve the ethnic conflicts. Those are three very big steps that we think have to be taken before we can further engage on the range of issues that we'd be willing to discuss.

KELEMEN: Secretary Clinton was speaking at a U.S. Embassy residence in Yangon. I'm Michele Kelemen.

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