YANGON, Burma - In a striking display of solidarity and sisterhood between two of the world's most recognizable women, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Burma, also known as Myanmar, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi vowed on Friday to work together to promote democratic reforms in Suu Kyi's long-isolated and authoritarian homeland.
Wrapping up a historic three-day visit to Burma, the first by a secretary of state to the Southeast Asian nation in more than 50 years, Clinton and Suu Kyi held hands on the porch of the lakeside home where the Nobel peace laureate spent much of the past two decades under house arrest. Clinton thanked her for her "steadfast and very clear leadership."
Suu Kyi has welcomed Clinton's visit and tentatively embraced reforms enacted by Burma's new civilian government. She thanked the secretary and U.S. President Barack Obama for their "careful and calibrated" engagement that has seen the United States take some modest steps to improve ties.
"If we move forward together I am confident there will be no turning back on the road to democracy," Suu Kyi said, referring to her opposition National League for Democracy party, the government, the United States and other countries, including Burma's giant neighbor China. "We are not on that road yet, but we hope to get there as soon as possible with the help and understanding of our friends."
"We are happy with the way in which the United States is engaging with us," she added. "It is through engagement that we hope to promote the process of democratization. Because of this engagement, I think our way ahead will be clearer and we will be able to trust that the process of democratization will go forward."
As she did in the capital of Naypyidaw on Thursday, Clinton said more significant incentives will be offered, but only if the government releases all political prisoners, ends brutal campaigns against ethnic minorities, respects the rule of law and improves human rights conditions.
"We are prepared to go further if reforms maintain momentum," Clinton said. "But history teaches us to be cautious. We know that there have been serious setbacks and grave disappointments over the past decades."
Clinton's meetings with Suu Kyi were the highlight of the U.S. secretary of state's visit to the long-isolated country also known as Burma and forcefully underscored a U.S. challenge to Burma's leaders.
In addition to the modest incentives Clinton announced Thursday for the government, she said Friday that the U.S. would spend about $1.2 million for preliminary projects aimed at helping the people of Burma. The money will go to microcredit and health care initiatives and assistance to land-mine victims, particularly in rural areas.
Suu Kyi, whose party won 1990 elections that were ignored by the then-military junta but now plans to run in upcoming parliamentary elections, endorsed that approach and called for the immediate release of all political prisoners and cease-fires to end the ethnic conflicts..
Suu Kyi, a heroine for pro-democracy advocates around the world, said Clinton's visit represented "a historical moment for both our countries."
With U.S. assistance and pressure on the government, which is still backed by the military, she said she believed change was on the horizon for Burma.
The meeting was the second in as many days for the pair who bonded deeply at a three-hour, one-on-one dinner in Yangon on Thursday, according to U.S. officials. One senior official said the dinner marked the beginning of what appeared to be a "very warm friendship" between the former first lady, New York senator and presidential hopeful and Suu Kyi, who plans to re-enter the political arena in upcoming parliamentary elections.
"We have been inspired by her fearlessness in the face of intimidation and her serenity through decades of isolation, but most of all through her devotion to her country and to the freedom and dignity of her fellow citizens," Clinton told reporters after the meeting Suu Kyi.
Clinton said the two had discussed the "ups and downs and slings and arrows of political participation" at dinner and that Suu Kyi would be an "excellent member" of Burma's parliament but declined to discuss any electoral advice she may have given here.