U.S. President Barack Obama announced on Friday that he'll send Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Myanmar, a nation, until recently, plagued by one of the longest running civil wars and a repressive military regime.
After years of darkness we've seen flickers of progress, said Obama, announcing the decision from Bali, Indonesia, where he's attending a meeting of East Asian leaders. Clinton will be the first U.S. Secretary of State to visit Burma in more than 50 years.
Obama announced the strategic visit after seeking a nod of approval Thursday over the phone from Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi, a pro-democracy activist and opposition leader.
Suu Kyi reiterated her support for U.S. engagement by hastening Myanmar's democratic reform and enforcement of human rights.
According to a senior administrative official, Obama and Suu Kyi reviewed the progress that has been made in Burma, including the release of some political prisoners and legislation that could open the political system further, ABC News reported.
A confirmation from Suu Kyi was critical for Obama before reaching a decision, which is being viewed as greatly decisive of U.S. diplomatic relations, not only with Myanmar, but the entire Southeast Asian region including China.
The Southeast Asian nations have endorsed Myanmar's chairmanship of the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2014, officials announced on Thursday. Myanmar, with its more than 2,000 political prisoners, was denied its chairmanship turn in 2006, which normally rotates among the 10 members of the regional bloc.
Since then, Myanmar has shown considerable progress by holding the first elections in 20 years, and by releasing many of the political prisoners, including Nobel Laureate Suu Kyi. The U.S. confidence in Myanmar grew when the latter suspended the work on a suspicious Chinese funded dam, risking its relationship with its closest and strongest ally, China.
Clinton's visit will put significant pressure on the Myanmar government to improve its dire governance, so as to avoid a boycott of ASEAN events in 2014 by the Western nations and to convince the U.S. and Europe to end sanctions that were imposed during the military regime.
In the event Myanmar fails to achieve these goals, the Southeast Asian nations could suffer a major embarrassment, especially in their attempts to counter China's growing influence in the region.
Myanmar's strategic location between India and China is of particular interest to the U.S., as are its untapped natural-gas resources.
Initial signs from the Myanmar government have been promising, with its Information and Cultural Minister saying that reforms were in store for the country.
We are hoping for a more open country with a thriving democracy and one that is active in the local, regional and international arena, Minister Kyaw Hsan told Reuters. A senior Myanmar Home Ministry official said on Wednesday that the government was ready to release more political prisoners.
Easing the western sanctions appears to be a priority for the Myanmar government, in a bid to recover from years of mismanagement of the economy.
President Thein Sein has also reached out to Suu Kyi, who was freed last year from 15 years of house arrest, Reuters reported.