x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Clinton and Suu Kyi promote closer ties

After having dinner together on Thursday evening, Ms Suu Kyi and Mrs Clinton held talks yesterday at Ms Suu Kyi¿s lakeside home in Yangon ¿ where she was under house arrest for 15 of the past 21 years.

BEIJING // The democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi yesterday called for further reforms on the final of day of the US secretary of state Hillary Clinton's landmark visit to Myanmar.

While Mrs Clinton echoed the call for political changes, doubts remain doubtful the all-powerful military will take any additional steps to loosen its grip on power.

After having dinner together on Thursday evening, Ms Suu Kyi and Mrs Clinton held talks yesterday at Ms Suu Kyi's lakeside home in Yangon - where she was held under house arrest for 15 of the past 21 years - during the first visit by a US secretary of state to Myanmar for more than five decades.

Ms Suu Kyi was released from house arrest a year ago, and Myanmar has also released political prisoners and seen a civilian government, albeit one with strong ties to the military, come to power.

Yet rights groups say 1,600 political prisoners remain behind bars, and Ms Suu Kyi yesterday said "we need to ensure all those who are still in prison to be released". With engagement from foreign powers, she was "confident there will be no turning back on the road to democracy".

"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," she said.

It has been more than two decades since the Myanmar authorities scrapped elections won by Ms Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, and the regime has been viewed as one of the world's most repressive, with rights groups citing atrocities against ethnic minorities. Ms Suu Kyi yesterday called for an end to "civil war".

Mrs Clinton clutched Ms Suu Kyi's hands and described the Nobel Peace Prize laureate as "an inspiration".

"I know that you feel you are standing for all the people of your country who deserve the same rights and freedom as people everywhere. We want to see this country take its rightful place in the world," Mrs Clinton said, adding "democracy is the goal" and that the US wanted to be "a partner" as the country became more democratic.

Mrs Clinton said her talks on Thursday with the Myanmar president, Thein Sein, in the capital, Naypyidaw, had given her "some ground for encouragement".

The US this week offered rewards for Myanmar's reforms, including a proposals to upgrade diplomatic ties to ambassador level and lifting restrictions preventing assistance from international organisations. Before flying out, Mrs Clinton yesterday announced US$1.2 million (Dh4.4m) of aid for landmine victims, health care and microfinance projects.

However, she made clear further changes were needed, including the release of political prisoners, better treatment of ethnic minorities and the cutting of nuclear ties with North Korea, before Washington will consider removing sanctions imposed for the past two decades.

During a visit to Myanmar two weeks ago, Andrew Mitchell, the United Kingdom's international development secretary, indicated his country would lift sanctions if political prisoners were released and Ms Suu Kyi allowed to engage freely in the political process.

Just as Myanmar is forging ties with the West to counterbalance its dependence on China, the US is strengthening its involvement in the Asia-Pacific amid concern over Beijing's regional assertiveness.

While saying the military that holds sway in Myanmar is "interested in opening up", Joseph Cheng, a professor of political science at City University of Hong Kong, said there were limits to how far reforms would go.

"We see definite signs of warming up to the western world, of engaging in economic reform, trade and investment activities with the western world and reducing the dependence on China," he said.

"As far as genuine political reform, the military regime giving up power, ready to hold real democratic elections, we're still very doubtful."

dbardsley@thenational.ae