The Barefoot Diplomat: Hillary Clinton Begins Landmark Visit to Burma

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U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and pro-democracy opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi talk prior to dinner in Rangoon, Burma, Dec. 1, 2011. (Photo: Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty Images)

One of the most surreal experiences in Burma is to leaf through the New Light of Myanmar. The English-language newspaper, which refers to the country by its official name, is among the most retrograde publications in the world. With tidbits like “True patriotism: It is very important for every one of the nation regardless of the place he lives to have strong Union Spirit,” it makes no apologies for being the propaganda arm of a military-linked government that has, in one form or another, ruled Burma since grabbing power in 1962.

Oftentimes, it’s what’s not reported in the New Light that’s as illuminating as what is. Consider the front-page headline on Monday, Nov. 28: “Belarusian Prime Minister and wife to pay goodwill visit to Myanmar.” Sure enough, on Nov. 30, Mikhail Myasnikovich and his wife Ludmila arrived in Burma’s secluded new capital, Naypyidaw. The Prime Minister of one of Europe’s most repressive states was greeted at the airport with fanfare and a pair of billboards.

The same day as Myasnikovich’s arrival, another foreign dignitary landed in Naypyidaw. Hillary Clinton was making a historic trip to Burma, the first by a U.S. Secretary of State in more than half a century and a watershed moment in the long-frosty relations between the two countries. (Just one point of contention: the U.S. government — and many of the country’s opposition leaders, including democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi — call it Burma, while the nation’s government and most citizens refer to it as Myanmar.) But you wouldn’t have known about Clinton’s imminent arrival from reading the New Light in the days leading up to her visit. On Nov. 30, the day Clinton arrived, the front page of the New Light ran a story that took up the entire front page, titled “Ways and means to be sought for boosting crop production to ensure food sufficiency for increasing population.”

While the Belarusian Prime Minister got some love at the airport, nary a welcome sign was prepared for the American delegation. On Dec. 1, the New Light did note that Clinton and her delegation had “arrived in Nay Pyi Taw by special aircraft at 4.30 p.m. today,” but that article was on page two of the paper and the story was merely a recitation of the top officials in her entourage and the high-level dignitaries who met her at the airport. By contrast, the Belarusian PM received lavish front-page treatment.

Although Clinton’s visit has raised hopes of a détente between Burma and the U.S., both sides are downplaying any immediate tangible results from her trip. The Americans have cautioned that there will likely be no announcement on a potential easing of the U.S. trade sanctions placed on the Burmese regime for its appalling human-rights record. State Department officials reiterated that any financial loosening would occur only if Burma’s new nominally civilian government takes substantive steps, such as releasing political prisoners and making peace with ethnic minorities who constitute some 40% of the country’s population. The U.S. will also press Burma to suspend its ties with fellow pariah state North Korea. The Burmese side, as evidenced by the New Light, has proved rather laconic so far, save new President Thein Sein, whom Clinton met on Thursday, proclaiming the visit “historic and a new chapter in relations.”

Clinton’s summit with Thein Sein—a former member of the military junta that handed over power to a quasi-civilian government in March — was relatively lengthy. Not much is known about the new President, apart from the fact that he is soft-spoken and well traveled — two characteristics that make him stand apart from some of Burma’s more belligerent and bunkered army men. Presidential political adviser Nay Zin Latt, who did not know Thein Sein until earlier this year, calls his new boss “a good listener.” Unlike other former junta generals, Thein Sein has little direct battlefield experience. In August, the new President, who retired from the military to lead a so-called civilian government that still has plenty of top brass in it, startled Burma watchers when he met Aung San Suu Kyi, the once jailed Nobel Peace Prize laureate whose National League for Democracy won polls in 1990 that the junta ignored.

After her summit with Thein Sein and other government officials, Clinton flew to Rangoon, Burma’s former capital and largest city, where she headed straight from the airport to the country’s spiritual epicenter, the Shwedagon pagoda. A soaring golden spire that provides a beacon not only for Rangoon but all of Burma, Shwedagon has also been the hub of political protests, most recently in 2007 when monk-led demonstrators gravitated to the holy space before a military crackdown across town eventually left dozens dead.

Clinton toured Shwedagon in bare feet (with polished red toenails), as is the Buddhist custom, accompanied by beefy U.S. Secret Service personnel who looked rather less threatening with their naked toes emerging from their suit pants. As a historian explained the site’s religious and historic significance — Shwedagon’s lore is that it contains eight strands of the Buddha’s hair — the Secretary of State asked about the process of laying gold leaf on the shining pagoda. (The answer, in a nutshell: it takes a lot of time and a lot of gold leaf.) Although many Burmese and tourists crowded around to see Clinton walk around the stupa, providing her with polite bursts of clapping, other locals who had gone to pray simply sat their ground, meditating with closed eyes as security personnel and a media scrum tried not to trip over them.

Thursday evening, Clinton is having a private dinner with opposition leader Suu Kyi, whom she is scheduled to meet twice during her three-day trip to Burma. At Shwedagon, I watched as a young monk from central Burma craned his neck to see Clinton’s blue-clad figure stride by golden Buddhas illuminated further by the flash of foreign-media cameras. “This is the most exciting day of my life,” he told me in English, which he had learned mostly from Hollywood movies. “She is a freedom woman.”

Later, the monk and I circumnavigated the 100-m-tall stupa together and he told me: “I am happy because your Foreign Minister will meet our leader.” For a moment, I was confused and thought he had mixed up his English future and past tenses. But then I realized he meant Suu Kyi, not Thein Sein. Somehow I doubt the New Light will be covering the meeting between the two ladies with the thoroughness it gave the Belarusian Prime Minister.