Clinton evaluates Burma firsthand

BEIJING -- Hillary Rodham Clinton touched down Wednesday in Burma to judge for herself the changes that pushed President Obama to make Clinton the first U.S. secretary of State to visit this isolated, impoverished nation in more than 50 years.

"I am obviously looking to determine for myself and on behalf of our government what is the intention of the current government with respect to continuing reforms both political and economic," Clinton told reporters before her arrival here.

Activists and citizens of Burma, also known as Myanmar, welcomed the visit but cautioned that Burma's military-backed, nominally civilian government is unlikely to allow full democracy to develop.

"It's hard to understand the Myanmar government; they do not speak what is in their hearts," warned U Htaung Ko Thang, a leader of the Chin ethnic group, who was elected a member of parliament in the 1990 elections, whose results the ruling junta annulled. "Unless we establish a democratic government, there is no opportunity for the Burmese people."

Burma's parliament approved a law guaranteeing the right to protest, which had not previously existed, and had opened up some political participation. But the government that took office in March is still dominated by the military.

Hundreds of political prisoners remain jailed, and Burma's army continues to torture and kill civilians, according to rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Veteran politician U Htwe Myint, a former political prisoner, said he was "very hopeful" about Clinton's visit, but called recent changes "window dressing." Even if the party of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi wins all the seats contested at by-elections this month, "the deciding power (in parliament) will still rest with the military," he said.

Others are more impressed by sweeping changes that include moves to allow labor unions, Internet access and exiles to return.

"The changes are the most significant that have taken place in that country for half a century," said David Steinberg, a Burma expert and professor at Georgetown University in Washington. "I hope they will continue, but nobody knows."

By advocating tough positions on human rights abuses, Clinton's visit should be a challenge to Burmese authorities to behave better, and not a "reward" for changes to date, said Benjamin Zawacki, Southeast Asia researcher for Amnesty International. Her visit "is a bold move, a risky endeavor."

In several areas home to Burma's ethnic minorities, who make up 25%-33% of the total population, "widespread and systematic violations of human rights continue to take place," Zawacki said. "The situation has actually gotten worse."

Clinton will meet Friday with representatives of ethnic minorities.