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Hillary Clinton begins a visit to Myanmar today, the first by a U.S. secretary of state, to that reclusive country, in half a century. Myanmar, long known as Burma, has been notorious for its repressive rule. In recent months, there have been signs of reform. Clinton says she's testing the waters to see how real those changes are.
NPR's Michele Kelemen is traveling with the secretary, who's just arrived in Naypyidaw, the country's new capital.
And, Michele, what will Secretary Clinton be doing during her two days in Myanmar?
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Well, after spending the night in the capital, she'll have her formal meetings in the morning with the president and also with Members of Parliament. What Clinton's hoping to do is to show support for these initial steps that have been taken. The U.S. has been surprised by them. But also, as one official put it, deeply realistic.
The Obama administration has failed in recent years to engage the country's military rulers, so they've really been taken by surprise at the changes that are taking place right now.
MONTAGNE: Michele, just run down for us quickly, what the reforms are that makes this visit possible.
KELEMEN: Well, the government has eased some media censorship laws. They change the labor laws. And probably, most importantly, they changed some election laws so that the party of Aung San Suu Kyi - she's the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and a leading opposition figure - decided to register for upcoming elections.
MONTAGNE: And why do U.S. officials think Myanmar seems to be opening up? What's their theory on why this is happening?
KELEMEN: Some analysts and activists I've spoken with say Myanmar really wants to rely less on China. But a U.S. official who is traveling with us, has another theory about this. He thinks that the country's new president, Thein Sein, who used to be prime minister; and in that role he traveled around a lot and saw how far behind his country is.
Myanmar is rich in resources, but it's one of the poorest nations in Southeast Asia. So, U.S. officials think that perhaps they're just tired of being an international outcast and maybe that's why they're changing.
MONTAGNE: One thing, though, the U.S. has been concerned about Myanmar's relationship with North Korea. Does Secretary Clinton have a message about that?
KELEMEN: The U.S. really wants to see the Myanmar government agree to more inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. There was some concern that - about nuclear cooperation between North Korea and Myanmar; though an official told us on the plane that there has not been signs of substantial nuclear effort. But there is a lot of concern that North Korea may be selling missile technology to Myanmar, and that's all banned under U.N. sanctions.
MONTAGNE: And I gather, Michele, that Clinton will also be making a stop to meet Aung San Suu Kyi, who is the face of the opposition, been under house arrest for a decade. When you know about that?
KELEMEN: Well, they're going to have a private dinner together. And this is the first time Secretary Clinton is meeting Aung San Suu Kyi, so she's very excited about that. She's also going to go to her house. And the U.S. has really been guided by Aung San Suu Kyi. President Obama called her before sending Clinton on the trip, to clear this trip with her.
And we're also told that Aung San Suu Kyi made some suggestions of what the U.S. might be able to offer the government in Myanmar to encourage reforms, and what things would be too premature, too fast.
MONTAGNE: And what were those sorts of things that she's suggesting to offer?
KELEMEN: Well, we don't know any of the details. We know what's not on offer, and that's the lifting of sanctions. The U.S. would have to get Congress to approve a lifting of sanctions, and no one is at a stage yet where they're confident enough of the reforms taking place in Myanmar to take such a dramatic step. But even sending Clinton to Myanmar was seen as a big diplomatic signal.
MONTAGNE: NPR's Michele Kelemen is traveling with Secretary of State Clinton. Thanks very much.
KELEMEN: My pleasure, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.