It has been an exciting and important week for the Burmese people. After decades of authoritarian rule, there are promising signs that the Myanmar regime is prepared to embrace democratic reform in a meaningful, sincere, and sustainable way.

In Sunday’s by-elections, opposition candidates won virtually all of the contested seats, and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was elected to Parliament after 20 years in detention. International observers generally agree that the elections were conducted in a free and fair manner. The Burmese government itself has praised the elections and pledged to quickly certify and honor the results.

Today Secretary Clinton discussed the Obama Administration’s response to the election including plans to name a fully accredited American Ambassador to Rangoon after an absence of more than two decades, establish a USAID mission to support development programs, enable American NGOs to operate in Burma, partially ease the ban on exports and investment, and facilitate travel to the US by certain Burmese parliamentarians and other officials engaged in implementing democratic reforms.

The Secretary noted the delicate nature of the process ahead:

“Now, this reform process has a long way to go. The future is neither clear nor certain. But we will continue to monitor developments closely and meet, as I said when I was there, action with action. We will continue to seek improvements in human rights, including the unconditional release of all remaining political prisoners and the lifting of conditions on all those who have been released. We will continue our support for the development of a vibrant civil society, which we think will greatly add to the reform of the economy and society. We will continue to urge progress in national reconciliation, specifically with ethnic minority groups. And we will continue to press for the verifiable termination of the military relationship with North Korea.

“Yet even as we urge these further steps, we fully recognize and embrace the progress that has taken place, and we will continue our policy of engagement that has encouraged these efforts. The leadership has shown real understanding and commitment to the future of their country. That development, we hope, will be sustainable and produce even more results.”

The positive steps forward in Burma are certainly worth celebrating, supporting, and reinforcing, as are the efforts of other reformers elsewhere to establish inclusive, transparent governance and respect for the inherent right of people everywhere to speak freely, assemble peacefully, and select their own leaders.

Yesterday Secretary Clinton stepped down onto the tarmac at Nay Pyi Taw, marking the first visit to Burma by a US Secretary of State in more than half a century. Accompanying her are Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell and a team of other Burma experts.

NAY PYI TAW, Burma (November 30, 2011) Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives in Nay Pyi Taw to begin her historic visit to Burma. [State Department photo by Scott Weinhold]

Secretary Clinton arrives yesterday in Nay Pyi Taw.

Today the Secretary met at length with Burmese President Thein Sein, his Foreign Minister, other senior Ministers, and the Speakers and Members of both houses of Parliament. In the Secretary’s words, “We had candid, productive conversations about the steps taken so far and the path ahead for reform.” A background briefing just posted online provides interesting insights on how the discussions went.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is greeted by Burmese Deputy Foreign Minister Dr. Myo Myint as she arrives in Nay Pyi Taw to begin her historic visit to Burma. [State Department photo by Scott Weinhold]

The Secretary is greeted by Burmese Deputy Foreign Minister Dr Myo Myint.

After meeting with President Thein Sein, Secretary Clinton engaged with Burmese reporters and other media to answer questions about the objectives and progress of her trip.

Although her 48 hours in Burma are packed with meetings, the Secretary fortunately had a few minutes today to visit the Shwedagon Pagoda, one of the great jewels of Southeast Asia. I spent an afternoon at Shwedagon in 1985, marveling at the architecture and dodging the tourist police.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon during her historic visit to Burma. [State Department photo by Kay Itoi]

The Secretary enters Shwedagon with her hosts.

Located on Singutarra Hill in Rangoon, parts of Shwedagon Pagoda, aka the Golden Pagoda, are more than 2,500 years old. Archaeologists believe that the original stupa was built during the lifetime of Siddhārtha Gautama Buddha, around 580BC.

Shwedagon Pagoda. Please click through for image source.

Shwedagon Pagoda.

The temple dominates the city’s skyline and has been a rallying point for civil protests since the 1920s. Over several days in September 2007, tens of thousands of monks, nuns, and other citizens marched at the Pagoda in protest against the military regime and in support of Aung San Suu Kyi.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon during her historic visit to Burma. [State Department photo by Kay Itoi]

The Secretary at a ceremonial planetary post at Shwedagon Pagoda.

The Secretary had a productive dinner this evening with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and will meet with her again tomorrow. While in Rangoon, the Secretary will also consult with a broad, diverse group of civil society and ethnic minority leaders about their views on developments in Burma.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for dinner in Rangoon during her historic visit to Burma. [State Department photo by William Ng]

The Secretary dines with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

Secretary Clinton’s visit is an historic opening, laden with promise. As she said earlier today:

“These are beginning steps, and we are prepared to go even further if reforms maintain momentum. In that spirit, we are discussing what it will take to upgrade diplomatic relations and exchange ambassadors. Over time, this could become an important channel to air concerns, monitor and support progress, and build trust on both sides.

“The last time an American Secretary of State came to Burma, it was John Foster Dulles, and this country was considered the jewel of Asia, a center of higher learning and the rice bowl of the region. In the last half century, other countries have raced ahead and turned East Asia into one of the world’s great centers of dynamic growth and opportunity. So the most consequential question facing this country, both leaders and citizens, is not your relationship with the United States or with any other nation. It is whether leaders will let their people live up to their God-given potential and claim their place at the heart of the 21st century, a Pacific century.

“There is no guarantee how that question will be answered. If the question is not answered in a positive way, then once again, the people could be left behind. But if it is answered in a positive way, I think the potential is unlimited.”

As he was wrapping up nine days of highly productive meetings in the Pacific region, President Obama announced that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will travel to Burma in the near future. He noted that there have been promising steps forward on the path toward reform there, and stated that the United States is prepared to seize “what could be an historic opportunity for progress”:

The President stated:

“Last night, I spoke to Aung San Suu Kyi, directly, and confirmed that she supports American engagement to move this process forward. So today, I’ve asked Secretary Hillary Clinton to go to Burma. She will be the first American Secretary of State to travel to the country in over half a century, and she will explore whether the United States can empower a positive transition in Burma and begin a new chapter between our countries.

“[T]here’s more that needs to be done to pursue the future that the Burmese people deserve — a future of reconciliation and renewal. But today, we’ve decided to take this step to respond to the positive developments in Burma and to clearly demonstrate America’s commitment to the future of an extraordinary country, a courageous people, and universal values.”

The ancient city of Pagan. Click through for image source.
The ancient city of Pagan.

I was pleased to hear the President’s words, as I have long had a special place in my heart for Burma. While living in Tokyo in 1985 as a Luce Scholar, I spent one of my holidays touring Burma in a jeep with friends. I was awed by the ancient city of Pagan, inspired by the beauty of Lake Inle, and charmed by the warmth of the people in the many villages we visited. I have seen no more magical place in my wanderings thus far.

I wish the Secretary much success in her upcoming visit, and trust that the flickers of hope that the President noted in his statement illuminate a positive path forward for the Burmese people.