Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, has met Aung San Suu Kyi, the Myanmar opposition leader and Nobel peace laureate, on a historic visit to the Asian nation.
The two women shared a private dinner at the home of the high-ranking Yangon-based US diplomat on Thursday, in advance of a more formal meeting the next day at Suu Kyi’s residence – effectively her prison until she was released last November after years in detention.
It is the first time the pair have met in person, though they have spoken by telephone. Clinton has often referred to Suu Kyi as a personal inspiration.
After talks with President Thein Sein earlier in the day, Clinton said the US is ready to further improve relations with Myanmar, but only if it stays on the path of democratisation.
Suu Kyi welcomed US engagement with her country, which has been politically isolated by Western powers.
“If we go forward together I’m confident there will be no turning back from the road to democracy. We are not on that road yet but we hope to get there as soon as possible with our friends,” she told reporters after the meeting with Clinton.
Her National League for Democracy will contest next year’s by-elections for parliament – seen as the next key test of the government’s reform programme – and Suu Kyi herself has said she will stand for election.
‘Path of reform’
Clinton announced a package of modest steps to improve ties, including US support for new International Monetary Fund and World Bank needs assessment missions and expanded UN aid programs for the country’s struggling economy.
She also said the US would consider reinstating a full ambassador in Myanmar and could eventually ease crippling
economic sanctions, but underscored that these future steps would depend on further measurable progress in Myanmar’s reform drive.
“It has to be not theoretical or rhetorical. It has to be very real, on the ground, that can be evaluated. But we are open
to that and we are going to pursue many different avenues to demonstrate our continuing support for this path of reform,” Clinton told reporters in the capital, Naypyidaw.
Al Jazeera’s Aela Callan reports from Naypyidaw
The US has been represented in Myanmar by a lower-ranking diplomat, a charge d’affaires, as a protest since the country’s military rulers refused to accept the results of 1990 elections swept by Suu Kyi.
Clinton’s visit is the first high-level visit by a US official in half a century.
Thein Sein hailed a “new chapter in relations” with Washington.
“Your visit is historic and will be a new chapter in relations. I appreciate the atmosphere you have created for friendly relations,” he told Clinton.
Clinton, in turn, told the former general: “I am here today because President [Barack] Obama and myself are encouraged by the steps that you and your government have taken to provide for your people.”
Myanmar was ruled by the military for decades until elections last year brought a nominally civilian government to power – albeit one with close links to the army.
“This redistribution of power has seen many surprises come up and the pace of reform has been much quicker than many had anticipated,” Al Jazeera’s Aela Callan reported from Naypyidaw.
“President Thein Sein and also the speaker of the lower house have shown great desire to open the country to the West. In particular, they will be looking for help to reform the economy. A third of Myanmar is still in poverty and foreign aid is low.”
Rights record improving
The UN and international human rights organisations have repeatedly issued reports of widespread and systematic human rights violations in Myanmar.
But since the transition to “civilian” government, the country’s record has been improving, rights groups say.
The government recently released more than 230 political prisoners, eased media censorship and sought guidance from international financial institutions to revive its economy.
Myanmar also amended its political parties law, removing a clause which bars anyone convicted of a crime from joining a party or taking part in an election. That paves the way for political prisoners, particularly Suu Kyi, to run for office.
In a rare interview with US reporters on Wednesday, Suu Kyi said she was ready to gamble that recent reforms represent a genuine transition to democracy after decades of false hopes.
“We hope that they are meaningful,” she said. “I think we have to be prepared to take risk. Nothing is guaranteed.”