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Clinton Tests Reforms On Historic Visit To Myanmar

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton touched down in Myanmar on Wednesday, the first top-level American official to visit the reclusive country in half a century.

Myanmar, long known as Burma, has been notorious for its repressive rule, though there have been signs of reform in recent months, such as the easing of media censorship and changes in labor and elections laws.

Clinton, who arrived in the capital city of Naypyidaw, is testing the waters to see how real the changes are and whether the country's new civilian leaders are ready to throw off 50 years of military dictatorship. She was to meet with senior Myanmarese officials Thursday before heading to the former capital, Yangon, where she will see opposition leader and Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who is returning to the political scene after years of detention and harassment.

NPR's Michele Kelemen, who was traveling with the secretary of state, said officials greeted Clinton at the airport with little fanfare and that she made her way along an empty four-lane highway past dozens of hotels that Myanmar is building in its new, sprawling capital.

The Obama administration is betting that the visit will pay dividends, promoting human rights, limiting suspected cooperation with North Korea on ballistic missiles and nuclear activity and loosening Chinese influence in a region where America and its allies are wary of China's rise.

"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 before her arrival.

She declined to discuss the specific measures she would suggest or how the U.S. might reciprocate.

"We and many other nations are quite hopeful that these flickers of progress ... will be ignited into a movement for change that will benefit the people of the country," she said, echoing President Obama when he announced he was sending her to Myanmar.

Clinton's task is a difficult balancing act of trying to promote moderates in Myanmar's government while raising tough issues such as human rights, the release of political prisoners and the country's relationship with North Korea.

"[U.S.] officials say that they want the government to agree to inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency," Kelemen said. "There was some concern about nuclear cooperation, though one official told us on the plane that the U.S. hasn't seen signs of a substantial nuclear effort. But there's a lot of concern that North Korea may be selling missile technology to Myanmar in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions."

Clinton's private dinner on Thursday and formal meeting with Suu Kyi on Friday probably will be the highlights of the visit. Suu Kyi, who intends to run for Parliament in upcoming elections, has welcomed Clinton's trip and told Obama in a phone call earlier this month that engagement with the government would be positive. Clinton has called Suu Kyi a personal inspiration.

The two-day trip is the first major development in U.S.-Myanmarese relations in decades and comes after the Obama administration launched a new effort to prod reforms in 2009 with a package of carrot-and-stick incentives.

Although U.S. officials say they are deeply realistic after the failed efforts to engage the country's military rulers, they hope to support Myanmar's initial steps toward reform.

Kelemen said Clinton may offer some incentives if they continue but noted that one thing won't be on offer: the lifting of sanctions. That would require an act of Congress, she said, and no one is confident enough of the initial steps that have been taken.

But U.S. officials also say that such steps could be taken if Myanmar proves itself to be serious about reform. Other steps being contemplated include upgrading diplomatic relations that would see the two countries exchange ambassadors.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reported from Myanmar for this story, which contains material from The Associated Press

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