, YANGON, Dec 2 – US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sought the blessing Friday of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi for a US push to reconcile with Myanmar, after Washington offered the regime a fresh start in relations.
In a meeting unthinkable little more than a year ago, Clinton began in-depth talks with the Nobel laureate at the crumbling lakeside mansion in Yangon where Suu Kyi spent most of the past two decades as a prisoner in her own home.
Clinton greeted the slender but indomitable opposition leader with a kiss on both cheeks as she arrived at her home, while a small crowd of reporters waited outside.
The top US diplomat was on the final day of a historic three-day visit to the nation formerly known as Burma in which she offered incremental concessions to the regime, including easing restrictions on foreign assistance.
Suu Kyi and Clinton, two of the world’s best-known women, met face-to-face for the first time Thursday for a private dinner at which the Secretary of State hand-delivered a personal letter from President Barack Obama.
The message thanked Suu Kyi for her “inspiration” to people around the world and said the United States would stand by her “now and always”.
The Nobel Peace laureate is widely admired in Washington and her support is politically indispensable there for any move to reconcile with Myanmar.
In an unusual move, Clinton dispensed with her aides and dined alone with Suu Kyi on Thursday at the lakeside residence of the top Yangon-based US diplomat. A US official said they enjoyed local curries and other delicacies which the consulate’s chef believed to be Suu Kyi’s favourites.
Clinton briefed Suu Kyi on her talks earlier Thursday in Myanmar’s remote new showcase capital Naypyidaw, where she gave an upbeat assessment of President Thein Sein and his desire to shake off decades of military rule.
“The United States is prepared to walk the path of reform with you if you choose to keep moving in that direction. And there’s no doubt that direction is the right one for the people,” Clinton told reporters in Naypyidaw.
Clinton also delivered a letter from Obama to Thein Sein, offering a “new phase” in ties in return for “tangible outcomes” on political reform.
She offered no major concessions but said that the United States would support UN-backed development assistance to Myanmar.
She also said the United States would begin talks on resuming work to find the remains of 600 US servicepeople left unaccounted for in World War II, when Asia’s one-time bread-basket was a major battlefield.
But Clinton said that Myanmar must do more to warrant a removal of sweeping sanctions. US congressional law, championed by pro-Suu Kyi exiles, requires sanctions and forces Washington to vote against funding to Myanmar at global financial institutions.
If the government makes more progress, Clinton said that the United States could ease sanctions and appoint a fully-fledged ambassador in Myanmar.
The United States has been represented at a lower level for two decades as a protest over Myanmar’s decision to ignore a 1990 election in which Suu Kyi’s allies won a sweeping victory.
Suu Kyi has said that she is heartened by reform and is hopeful she will participate in by-elections next year for a seat in parliament, in a stark test of how far Myanmar’s leaders will tolerate the opposition.
Suu Kyi long urged a tough approach to Myanmar’s generals and supported an economic boycott, opening the way for China and other Asian nations to develop business ties with the rulers of the resource-rich nation.
A senior US official who is travelling with Clinton said that Suu Kyi has asked Washington to give time to Thein Sein to make good on reforms and backed US incentives such as an upgrade of diplomatic relations.
“She is supportive of all the things that we had laid out,” the official said on condition of anonymity.
“She was even encouraging of us doing further things that we thought, at this time, probably it made sense for us to wait and see how things develop,” he said without elaborating.
A key demand of the opposition and foreign governments has long been the release of Myanmar’s political prisoners, estimated by activists to number between 500 and more than 1,500.
Clinton will also meet Friday with representatives of Myanmar’s ethnic minorities. Myanmar has some of the world’s longest-running civil wars with armed ethnic rebels, and there are widespread allegations of rights abuses involving the military, including rape and forced labour.