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Myanmar's Suu Kyi embraces U.S., with a nod to China

Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi welcomes U.S. support, but she also underscores the importance of China to her country's future.

December 03, 2011|By Clifford Coonan and Paul Richter, Los Angeles Times
  • U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton embraces Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi after their meeting at Suu Kyi's residence in Yangon.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton embraces Myanmar pro-democracy… (Associated Press, Saul…)

Reporting from Yangon, Myanmar, and Washington — Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi praised Washington's newly declared support for her country's recent political reforms, but she emphasized the importance of remaining on good terms with the nation's powerful longtime patron, China.

After a meeting Friday that capped Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's landmark visit, Suu Kyi said that, with U.S. backing, "I am confident that there will be no turning back from the road toward democracy."

Speaking to journalists on the porch of the lakeside house where she was detained by the government for 15 years, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate also underscored that Myanmar wanted to maintain "good, friendly relations with China, our very close neighbor, and not just with China but the rest of the world."

Clinton's three-day visit — the first in more than half a century by a U.S. secretary of State — was motivated in part by rising concern in Washington over China's growing political and economic clout in Southeast Asia. For example, Beijing is the largest investor in Myanmar, also known as Burma.

Clinton, however, downplayed suggestions by analysts that the U.S. diplomatic overture in Myanmar was part of an intensified effort to counter Chinese influence across the region. "We are not about opposing any other country; we're about supporting" Myanmar, she said.

Analysts said Suu Kyi's careful call for friendly relations with China followed the pattern of other Asian nations that rely on their giant neighbor for commerce and development but are anxious to avoid being dominated by it.

"They know that they need to get along with both China and the U.S.," said Douglas Paal, a former senior U.S. official now with Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

Clinton made clear her admiration for Suu Kyi, embracing her when they met Thursday. "It was like seeing a friend you haven't seen for a very long time, even though it was only our first meeting," Clinton said later in a BBC interview.

Clinton wore an Asian-cut white jacket, much like Suu Kyi's, for their dinner of curries and Burmese delicacies. The two women wore their hair pulled back in a similar style. They met again for more formal talks Friday.

Suu Kyi, who is expected to run in upcoming legislative elections, joined Clinton in calling on Myanmar's government to release more political prisoners, stop attacks on ethnic minorities and institute a new legal system to help guarantee that reforms last.

Clinton announced $1.2 million in humanitarian, health and education projects for Myanmar, a small addition to other incentives she has outlined this week in an effort to spur further reforms and revive long-frozen diplomatic relations.

U.S. officials said they would urge the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to consider sending teams to Myanmar as a prelude to restoring development aid. Such assistance was sharply curtailed in recent years amid concern over Myanmar's human rights record.

But Clinton stopped short of calling for new lending from those organizations and said any discussion about lifting U.S. economic sanctions was premature.

paul.richter@latimes.com

Special correspondent Coonan reported from Yangon and Times staff writer Richter from Washington.

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