U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has arrived in Burma on Wednesday in the first visit by a secretary of state to the country in more than half century.
In a visit that could lead to a breakthrough in U.S.-Burma relations, Clinton will be going to the Southeast Asian nation to gauge the government’s commitment to reform.
Burma has been ruled by a totalitarian military junta for 49 years, which has recently begun loosening its reigns on power and establishing new reforms and more political freedom with a 2010 transition to civilian rule.
The government, under President Thein Sein, has relaxed media restrictions and has made symbolic commitments to protecting basic rights.
In his statement earlier this month addressing why he made the historic decision to send Clinton to the country, U.S. President Barack Obama expressed that Burma is showing “flickers of progress” and that the administration wanted to send Clinton to the country to explore if the U.S. can empower a positive transition.
“I am obviously looking to determine for myself and on behalf of our government what is the intention of the current government with respect to continuing reforms – both political and economic,” Clinton told reporters prior to her arrival in the long-isolated county.
Clinton will be meeting with President Thein Sein on Thursday, and will be meeting with former political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, on Friday.
The milestone decision on behalf of the Obama Administration came following a conversation the president had with Burmese pro-democracy leader Suu Kyi earlier this month.
Suu Kyi, a Nobel laureate, spent 15 years under house arrest as a political prisoner, but has said she believes the current administration wants change and she has announced that she will be running in upcoming elections.
Although the Obama administration has said that it wants to “seize what could be a historic opportunity for progress,” it has expressed concern over about Burma’s commitment to reforms.
Burma is widely known for widespread religious intolerance and other abuses and shares a place on the U.S. State Department’s Countries of Particular Concern list with China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan.
Fighting that renewed in June in Burma’s northeastern Kachin State has displaced more than 30,000 people, a majority of them Christian.
Christians have been forbidden to build new churches and have had religious symbols – such as crosses – removed by the military according to a Human Rights Watch report.
Human Rights Watch argues, “Positive actions by Burma’s new government should not obscure the serious human rights problems persisting in the country.”
Obama stated earlier this month upon the announcement of his decision, “If Burma fails to move down the path of reform, it will continue to face sanctions and isolation.”
“But if it seizes this moment, then reconciliation can prevail, and millions of people may get the chance to live with a greater measure of freedom, prosperity and dignity,” he added.
Experts warn that the changes evident in Burma have been embraced with domestic and international optimism but have yet to materialize into substantial changes for Burmese ethnic and religious minorities, as repression and impunity persist.