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Clinton Tests Myanmar's Resolve Personally


Secretary of State Clinton visited Myanmar this week. The country also known as Burma has been an international pariah for years because of the brutal rule of its military junta. But now there are signs that at least some of the generals want to allow political reform. Secretary Clinton's trip was intended to test the regime's commitment to that effort. She also visited two very different cities during her visit. And as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, they represent the two sides of life in Myanmar - a gulf that the U.S. would like to help bridge.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Secretary Clinton describes her first face-to-face encounters with Aung San Suu Kyi as an overwhelming personal experience. She spent time in Suu Kyi's home, where the Nobel laureate was kept in house arrest for years, met her staff and even brought a treat for Suu Kyi's dog.

SECRETARY HILLARY CLINTON: It's a very famous dog today. Well, I hope you enjoy what I brought you. Chew away, chew away.

KELEMEN: They looked like old friends and clearly spoke the same language about democracy, the rights of ethnic groups and the need for development aid to lift Myanmar, or Burma as they still call it, out of poverty.

CLINTON: We want to see this country take its rightful place in the world. We want to see every child here given the chance for a good education. For the health care that he or she needs for a job that will support a family. For development not only in the cities but in the rural areas as well.

KELEMEN: Clinton and Suu Kyi met in Myanmar's old capital, Yangon, a place teaming with people and rich in historical and religious sites, one of which Clinton toured during her stay.



KELEMEN: Onlookers applauded her as she walked around on a guided tour of the Shwedagon Pagoda, glistening in the sunset. There were no crowds, however, to greet her earlier in the trip in Naypyitaw, the new capital a few hours to the north. In fact, there were hardly any people at all, aside from government officials.

I'm standing outside the presidential palace in Naypyitaw. We came here on what looked to be a 20-lane highway with absolutely no traffic. This city is quite surreal and the story goes that the former military ruler Than Shwe decided in secret to build this city and he was advised by an astrologer to move the capital to this more remote and safer part of the country, and he gave the government just one weekend to move back in 2005.

Compared to than Than Shwe, the country's new president, Thein Sein, is viewed as a reformer. He welcomed Clinton's entire encourage - reporters and all - into his Palace and Clinton urged him to keep on track with reforms. When I asked the secretary what she thought of Naypyitaw, she tried to be diplomatic saying she's seen new capitals sprout up in other countries as well.

CLINTON: And it always gives you a surreal impression like is this a set, it going to be here when I come back here tomorrow? But they've obviously invested a lot of money and effort in designing their government buildings. So as for the business for the government apparently it's going to be done, But its not a bustling lively city like Rangoon is, for sure.

KELEMEN: So do you think Aung San Suu Kyi will manage to live there or work there?

CLINTON: Oh, I think she is disciplined and determined and, you know, if they said the next meeting would be on Mars she'd figure out a way to get there.

KELEMEN: It's hard to picture Aung San Suu Kyi in the new capital, far removed from the people she wants to represent. Then again she's probably the best place person to serve as a bridge between her supporters and the isolated government in Naypyitaw. Michele Kelemen, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.