Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, has arrived in Myanmar for a ground-breaking visit, in an effort to push for greater democratic reform in the country and renew ties with its leadership.
She is the first US secretary of state to visit the country in more than 50 years. The US had cut ties with the country after Myanmar’s military seized power in 1962.
Clinton is expected to suggest specific reforms to the government during her visit, which follows a decision by President Barack Obama this month to open the door to expanded ties with the politically isolated country.
The UN and international human rights organisations had repeatedly issued reports of widespread and systematic human rights violations in Myanmar.
However, since the transition to a new “civilian” government in August 2011, Myanmar’s rights record has been improving, according to rights groups.
The government recently released more than 230 political prisoners, eased media censorship and sought guidance from international financial institutions to revive its economy.
As part of reforms, Myanmar also amended a political party law removing a clause barring anyone convicted of a crime from joining a party or taking part in an election, paving the way for those who had served a prison term, including Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the opposition National League for Democracy, to contest the polls.
Clinton’s visit could herald a broad political rehabilitation of Myanmar and may persuade the US and other Western powers to ease sanctions on the country.
She said in South Korea before her departure on Wednesday that she was hopeful that “flickers of progress” in the country “will be ignited into a movement for change” in Myanmar.
After holding talks with senior Myanmar officials on Thursday, Clinton will travel to the commercial capital, Yangon, where she will meet Aung San Suu Kyi.
The Nobel peace laureate has spent 15 of the last 21 years in detention after leading a popular uprising that was crushed by the army.
In a rare interview with US reporters on Wednesday, Suu Kyi said that she was ready to gamble that recent reforms represent a genuine transition to democracy after decades of false dawns.
“We hope that they are meaningful,” Suu Kyi told reporters. “I think we have to be prepared to take risk. Nothing is guaranteed.”
Clinton has said credible elections are one condition for ending US sanctions, along with the release of more political prisoners and peace with ethnic minorities.
Ko Ko Hlaing, a senior adviser to Thein Sein, Myanmar’s president, said on the sidelines of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Bali last week that the NLD’s decision to re-register was a “significant step”.
Al Jazeera’s Aela Callan, reporting from Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw, said that Clinton’s visit is a major step by the US government to further its influence in the region.
“Myanmar has been under the shelter of China in the last few decades, so the US is looking to reengage with this country which is in a really strategic position between India and China,” she said.
“People in Myanmar are very optimistic about this visit. They see it as a chance for their country open up with the outside world and reengage with the international community.”