NAYPYIDAW, Myanmar — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met Myanmar democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi Thursday after telling her nation’s leaders the United States is open to lifting sanctions if they grant more political freedoms and promote internal peace.
Clinton told President Thein Sein the United States would loosen restrictions on engagement by the World Bank and United Nations after he released political prisoners and engaged Suu Kyi in dialogue, according to a U.S. official who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity.
She said that more measures would follow if Myanmar — which the United States calls by its pre-1989 name, Burma — takes more steps to ease political repression and demonstrates reforms will last, including an upgrade in diplomatic relations, the official said.
“We will certainly consider the easing and elimination of sanctions as we go forward in this process together,” Clinton told reporters Thursday in Naypyidaw after meeting Thein Sein. “We know more needs to be done, however, and we think that we have to wait to make sure that this commitment is real.”
Clinton is the highest ranking U.S. official in half a century to visit Myanmar, run by a series of generals since 1962 until an election last year. A political detente would allow U.S. and European companies greater access to a market of 62 million people who have relied on neighbors China, India and Thailand to grow one of Asia’s smallest economies.
“This is a potentially game-changing visit, but there is no way that the U.S. can even begin to compete with China while keeping incredibly thorough sanctions in place,” said Thant Myint-U, a former United Nations official who has written two books on Myanmar. “Sanctions not only block U.S. companies from doing business in Myanmar, but also cripple any moves towards serious economic reform.”
After meeting Thein Sein and other senior Myanmar officials, Clinton flew to the former capital Yangon and toured the Shwedagon Pagoda, the nation’s holiest Buddhist shrine and the site of a crackdown on protests by monks in 2007.
Locals, tourists and monks strained against a line of security guards to take Clinton’s picture as she walked through the temple, stopping to sign a guest book, ring a bell three times and pour water over the head of a Buddha statue. Clinton smiled and waved to the crowd, which applauded as she and State Department officials walked barefoot through the temple grounds.
Clinton later hosted Suu Kyi for dinner at the residence of the U.S. charges d’affaires. The Nobel laureate encouraged Clinton to support reformers in Myanmar’s government and encourage officials who are sitting on the fence to join them in fighting hardliners who oppose more political freedom, the U.S. official told reporters Thursday.
Suu Kyi, 66, will run in an election for the first time after her party voted to rejoin the political process on Nov. 18. Last month she said Thein Sein was “very genuine in his desire for the process of democratization.”
Suu Kyi said she attributed the shift to internal resistance, international pressure and Myanmar’s 2014 chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
“Some people in government now, who used to be very high officers in the military, also began to see the need for change,” Suu Kyi said in a video chat with the Council on Foreign Relations on Nov. 30. “I think they began to see Burma couldn’t go on this way, they would have to change and I do believe there are people in the government and in the military who want to do what is best for the people.”