NAYPYIDAW, Burma - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has begun a historic visit to the long-isolated Southeast Asian nation of Burma, which is also known as Myanmar, to test the country's first civilian government in decades on its commitment to reform, including severing military and nuclear ties with North Korea.
Clinton arrived Wednesday in the capital of Naypyidaw on the first trip by a U.S. secretary of state to the nation in more than 50 years. She is to meet senior Burmese officials Thursday before heading to the commercial capital of 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.
"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 here.
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 Burma.
Clinton was greeted at Naypyidaw's small airfield by a deputy foreign minister, several other officials and a large contingent of international press who were granted rare visas to cover her visit. But her presence here appeared to take second stage to the expected arrival Thursday of the prime minister of Belarus and his wife, to whom two large welcoming signs were erected at the airport and the road into the city. Belarus is often criticized for its poor human rights record and is subject to U.S. sanctions similar to those Burma is under.
No signs welcoming Clinton were visible as her motorcade bounced from the airport to the city on a bumpy cement road that was largely devoid of vehicles, with traffic police stopping small and scattered groups of cars, trucks and motorbikes at intersections.
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.
Officials say Clinton will be seeking assurances from Burma's leaders that they will sign an agreement with the U.N. nuclear watchdog that will permit unfettered access to suspected nuclear sites. The U.S. and other Western nations suspect Burma has sought and received nuclear advice along with ballistic missile technology from North Korea in violation of U.N. sanctions. A U.S. official said missiles and missile technology are of primary concern but signs of "nascent" nuclear activity are also worrying.
Clinton also will note the government's baby steps toward democratic reform after 50 years of military rule that saw brutal crackdowns on pro-democracy activists like Suu Kyi and members of her National League for Democracy party.
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.
Suu Kyi said Wednesday that she still supports U.S. sanctions against her country's government, but will have a better idea of the chances for reform after she meets with Clinton.
The trip is the first major development in U.S.-Burma 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.
One senior official accompanying Clinton on the trip described the administration's early efforts as "abysmal failures" but said the situation had improved notably in recent months. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss the administration's internal thinking.
The rapprochement sped up when Burma held elections last year that gave power to a new government that pledged greater openness. The administration's special envoy to Burma has made three trips to the country in the past three months, and the top U.S. diplomat for human rights has made one.
Those officials pushed for Clinton to make the trip, deeming a test of the reforms as worthwhile despite the risks of backsliding.
President Thein Sein, a former army officer, has pushed reforms forward after Myanmar experienced decades of repression under successive military regimes that canceled 1990 elections that Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party won.
Last week, Burma's parliament approved a law guaranteeing the right to protest, which had not previously existed, and improvements have been made in areas such as media and Internet access and political participation. The NLD, which had boycotted previous flawed elections, is now registered as a party.
But the government that took office in March is still dominated by a military-proxy political party, and Burma's commitment to democratization and its willingness to limit its close ties with China are uncertain.
Corruption runs rampant, hundreds of political prisoners are still jailed and violent ethnic conflicts continue in the country's north and east. Human rights activists have said Clinton's visit should be judged on improvements in those conditions.
Burma's army continues to torture and kill civilians in campaigns to stamp out some of the world's longest-running insurgencies, according to rights groups. They say ongoing atrocities against ethnic minorities serve as a reminder that reforms recently unveiled by the country's military-backed government to worldwide applause are not benefiting everyone.
Aid groups have reported atrocities that occurred as recently as last month: A village leader was killed, allegedly by soldiers, for helping a rebel group, his eyes gouged out and his 9-year-old son buried beside him in a shallow grave. The boy's tongue was cut out.
With minorities making up some 40 percent of Burma's 56 million people and settled in some of its most resource-rich border regions, resolution of these brutal conflicts is regarded by all sides as crucial. The fighting has uprooted more than 1 million people, now refugees within their country or in neighboring Thailand and Bangladesh.
And, although the government suspended a controversial Chinese dam project earlier this year, China laid down a marker ahead of Clinton's trip by having its vice president meet the head of Burma's armed forces on Monday.
China's Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Vice President Xi Jinping pledged to maintain strong ties with Burma and encouraged Gen. Min Aung Hlaing to push for solutions to unspecified challenges in relations.
Burma also remains subject to tough sanctions that prohibit Americans and U.S. companies from most commercial transactions in the country.
U.S. officials say Clinton's trip is a fact-finding visit and will not result in an easing of sanctions. But officials also say that such steps could be taken if Burma proves itself to be serious about reform. Other steps being contemplated include upgrading diplomatic relations that would see the two countries exchange ambassadors.
Despite high hopes, U.S. officials remain decidedly cautious about prospects for Clinton's visit. That caution has been echoed by some members of Congress, who have expressed concern that the trip is an undeserved reward for the regime.
"I am concerned that the visit of the secretary of state sends the wrong signal to the Burmese military thugs that cosmetic actions ... are sufficient for the U.S. to engage the regime," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "Secretary Clinton's visit represents a monumental overture to an outlaw regime whose DNA remains fundamentally brutal."
Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Rep. Ed Royce, D-Calif., urged Clinton to make Burma's dealings with North Korea a top priority of her trip.