NEW: Hillary Clinton is scheduled to share dinner with Aung San Suu Kyi
Clinton's visit comes in the wake of concessions by the new government
Suu Kyi talks via video to the Council on Foreign Relations
An opposition figure says the changes in Myanmar are cosmetic
“I will obviously be looking to determine for myself what the intention is of the current government with respect to continued reforms,” Clinton said from Busan in South Korea before taking off for Naypyitaw, the new capital of Myanmar.
It will be the first time the U.S. secretary of state has met the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner and one of the world’s most famous pro-democracy supporters, but they have spoken on the phone before, a senior State Department official said.
The dinner wraps up a busy schedule for Clinton – the first American secretary of state in 50 years to visit to the reclusive state.
Clinton’s schedule Thursday included meetings with Myanmar President Thein Sein, Foreign Minister Wunna Muang Lwinand and members of both houses of Parliament.
Before her dinner with Suu Kyi, Clinton was scheduled to visit the ornate Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, the former national capital, which also is known as Rangoon.
On Wednesday, Suu Kyi told a major U.S. think tank she intends to run for parliament and emphasized the importance of political reform in a country where she was under house arrest for most of the past two decades.
Suu Kyi briefed an audience at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington by video from Myanmar.
“I hope the secretary’s visit will open the way to a better relationship,” Suu Kyi said, referring to Clinton’s trip. “I think she will be able to discuss some of the very important issues (with the government) and they will be able to come to some kind of understanding to encourage reforms to go further.”
Clinton’s historic two-day visit comes as the Asian country, known for its repressive policies, is undergoing a period of rapid political change that the Obama administration cautiously says it finds encouraging as well as promising. Clinton’s trip is an indication that the time could be right to forge a new relationship between the nations, the White House has said.
Ruled by a junta since 1962, Myanmar is now under a new president, Thein Sein, elected in March. The new government freed dozens of political prisoners last month following the release of Suu Kyi last November.
Suu Kyi touched on reform and a range of topics, including her political aspirations, in her discussion with the Council on Foreign Relations. Her National League for Democracy (NLD) recently announced that she will run in the next parliamentary election. The group also decided to re-enter politics.
While she hopes to run for Parliament, she doesn’t know exactly when the special elections will be. Asked what role she would play once elected, she quipped, “the role of a member of parliament.”
She said her platform is rule of law and ethnic harmony. She is also supportive of constitutional amendments, but didn’t elaborate on these ideas. She said she expects the NLD to field a number of female candidates.
Suu Kyi called for judicial reform and noted the importance of learning to disagree in forging national reconciliation. She also emphasized the importance of the rule-of-law concept.
“I would like to remind everyone that even more important (than political prisoners) is the issue of rule of law. Even if all the prisoners are released tomorrow, they could be re-arrested,” she said.
Suu Kyi said media outlets in her country have more room to operate than they did in the past two decades and that the number of journalists has increased.
Young people in her country are more engaged in politics, a development that heartened Suu Kyi.
In 2002, she said, people felt politics was a “dangerous game,” and did not want to be involved. But now this has changed and she credited social media, in part. She said young people in Burma can use the Internet to connect with others in and outside of Myanmar. As a result, she said, they’ve become better informed. She said she herself is not on Facebook or Twitter because she doesn’t have the time.
When the moderator asked whether internal resistance or international pressure led to Myanmar’s reforms, Suu Kyi said, “Some in the government and the military saw that Burma couldn’t go on in this way. I do believe there are people in the government and military who want what is best for the people and the country.”
Meanwhile, Clinton was greeted by officials in a low-key and cordial manner as she arrived at an airport in the capital of Naypyidaw on Wednesday.
“I will obviously be looking to determine for myself what the intention is of the current government with respect to continued reforms,” Clinton said from Busan in South Korea before taking off for Naypyidaw.
“We and many other nations are very hopeful that these flickers of progress as President Obama called them in Bali will be ignited into a movement for change that will benefit the people if the country.”
The United States has greeted the reforms with cautious optimism, still referring to the country as Burma, the name the country used before democratic election results were thrown out by the military junta more than 25 years ago.
Obama has noted the release of some 200 political prisoners, relaxation of media restrictions and new legislation that could open up the political environment, but he said there is more to be done. The administration still is concerned, officials say, about Myanmar’s closed political system, its treatment of minorities and the holding of other political prisoners.
Clinton said the United States wants more political prisoners released, a “real” political process with elections, and an end to conflicts with ethnic minorities that have displaced tens of thousands of the country’s residents.
The administration, however, is not ending sanctions and is not making any abrupt changes in policy. In an interview with CNN’s Brianna Keilar, Clinton said one of the reasons she was going “is to test what the true intentions are and whether there is a commitment to both economic and political reform.”
U.S. officials say the Obama administration began reviewing its policy on Myanmar in 2009 when it came into office. It began talking with major players in the region, including China, and with European leaders.
A key conclusion among the countries was that the policy of stringent economic sanctions was not yielding results for the strategy the administration wanted to follow. So began what the administration refers to as “parallel engagement” – talking with the regime while, at the same time, talking with Suu Kyi.
Obama also spoke to Suu Kyi by phone two weeks before Clinton’s trip, the official said. Asked about her call with Obama, Suu Kyi said she told him, among other things, she was in favor of engagement between the nations.
“I also asked about his dog,” she said.
Asked if she was too much of an interlocutor between the United States and the Myanmar government, Suu Kyi answered, “No,” and noted the United States engages other democratic opposition groups.
As for regional and international issues, she said she hoped the Association of Southeast Asian Nations chairmanship would continue to shine a light on human rights issues in Myanmar, as many countries have done. She noted that some countries are “more interested in democracy and human rights than others.”
Asked what India and China could do to support Myanmar, Suu Kyi said democratic India should help promote democratic values. She said Myanmar had a good record of friendship with China and she hoped they could maintain that.
“I do not think simply because we believe in different systems of government we need be hostile to each other,” she said.
She urged the United Nations to play a more proactive role in Myanmar and other parts of the world. She called for for any International aid or help to be sustainable and provided in a way that empowers the citizenry. Donors, she said, must insist on transparency and accountability.
Suu Kyi urged Myanmar’s government to do more for the country’s “ethnic nationalities,” such as well-coordinated humanitarian aid. The CIA World Factbook says 68% of the country’s ethnic makeup is Burmese. Other groups include Shan, Karen, Rakhine, Chinese, Indian, and Mon.
“There has to be action taken to make the ethnic nationalities understand that their interests are considered by the government,” she said. “We should never forget the Burmese are one of many ethnic minorities.”
Suu Kyi said the American government had made it quite clear what is expected of Myanmar before sanctions could be lifted, “and the best way to lift sanctions is to meet these conditions” that were set when Congress implemented them. “When the conditions have been met, then that time has come.”
Myanmar democracy veteran Win Tin, the 82-year-old, NLD free speech campaigner who spent almost 20 years in prison, says the changes have been cosmetic and will only benefit the country’s ruling elite.
“Changes happen, but actually they happen on paper,” Win Tin said. “(There have been) announcements to the media and (talks with) Aung San Suu Kyi and so on. But at the grass roots level, there is no change at all. People suffer a lot … people suffer human rights violations.”
He said he did not know what was driving the reforms but suggested that members of the government could fear prosecution for human rights abuses if the opposition wins parliamentary elections in three months’ time.
CNN’s Paula Hancocks, Elise Labott, Pete Shadbolt and Jill Dougherty contributed to this report.