YANGON, Myanmar — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was presented during a historic three-day visit to Myanmar with two distinct sides to life in the isolationist and authoritarian country: the planned city of monstrous government offices and palaces built by a brutal military regime, and the Southeast Asian metropolis famed for temples and monks, where Clinton met a soul mate in opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Bidding for a dramatic advance of American influence in Asia, Clinton finished the visit Friday with a call for greater reform from a government long accustomed to iron-fisted rule. She invoked the promise of a new era of relations with the United States if the country also known as Burma delivered democratic change.
"The United States wants to be a partner with Burma," Clinton said Friday at Suu Kyi's home. "We want to work with you as you further democratization, as you release all political prisoners, as you begin the difficult but necessary process of ending the ethnic conflicts that have gone on far too long, as you hold elections that are free, fair, and credible."
If the immense but largely empty capital of Naypyidaw represented the harshness of the southeast Asian country's present, bustling Yangon offered glimpses of a brighter past – and possibly its future.
Despite the risk of giving legitimacy to a brutal military regime, the Obama administration saw Myanmar's democratic stirrings as a unique opportunity to champion democracy for almost 50 million people who have struggled under more than two decades of dictatorship. By re-opening the discussions at such a high level, the administration also raised the chances of making dramatic inroads for American foreign policy in China's backyard.
Myanmar has historic ties with China but has pulled back from a major dam project sought by its northern neighbor amid signs the new leaders are sensitive to criticism that China is taking unfair advantage of its much smaller but resource-rich neighbor. While Clinton spoke of significant American incentives down the road, officials were careful to point out there are no immediate plans to lift the heavy U.S. sanctions on Myanmar imposed because of its abysmal human rights record.
Finishing the first trip by a secretary of state to the nation in more than 50 years, Clinton and Suu Kyi held hands on the porch of the lakeside home where the Nobel peace laureate spent much of the past two decades under house arrest. Clinton thanked her for her "steadfast and very clear leadership."
Suu Kyi had welcomed Clinton's visit and tentatively embraced reforms enacted by Myanmar's new civilian government. She thanked the secretary and President Barack Obama for their "careful and calibrated" engagement that has seen the United States take some modest steps to improve ties.
"If we move forward together I am confident there will be no turning back on the road to democracy," Suu Kyi said. "We are not on that road yet, but we hope to get there as soon as possible with the help and understanding of our friends."
As she did in Naypyidaw on Thursday, Clinton said closer relations with the U.S. will be offered if the government accelerates its reform process. "History teaches us to be cautious," she said. "We know that there have been serious setbacks and grave disappointments over the past decades."
Clinton's meetings with Suu Kyi served as the highlight of the trip and forcefully underscored the challenge to Myanmar's leaders. Suu Kyi's party won 1990 elections that were ignored by the then-military junta but now plans to run in upcoming parliamentary elections. She is regarded as a heroine for pro-democracy advocates around the world.
The meeting was the second in as many days for the pair, who bonded deeply at a three-hour, one-on-one dinner in Yangon on Thursday, according to U.S. officials. One senior official said the dinner marked the beginning of what appeared to be a "very warm friendship" between the former first lady, New York senator and presidential hopeful and Suu Kyi, who hopes to re-enter the political arena through the upcoming parliamentary elections.
The two women are united in pressing for more democratic reforms, Clinton said. The U.S. will spend about $1.2 million for projects aimed at helping the people of Myanmar through microcredit, health care initiatives and assistance to land-mine victims, she also announced Friday.
In the government, "there are those who are pushing reform, and there are those who are dead set against it, and then there are probably the most people in the middle trying to gauge which way they should jump," Clinton told the BBC. "Anything that can be done which legitimates the reformist tendencies should be, in her view, and I agree with this, validated and encouraged."
Klapper reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Aye Aye Win in Yangon contributed to this report.