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Obama to send Clinton to Myanmar as Aung San Suu Kyi announces return to politics

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Burmese dissident leader Aung San Suu Kyi arrives at her party headquarters in Yangon Friday. (Khin Maung Win …

President Obama will send Hillary Clinton to Myanmar next month, making her the first American Secretary of State to visit the military dictatorship in 50 years. In announcing the trip, Obama noted that the notoriously repressive Burmese government is showing tentative progress toward political reform.

"After years of darkness, we've seen flickers of progress in these last several weeks," Obama told journalists at a conference of Asian-Pacific leaders in Bali, Indonesia Friday. "Of course, there's far more to be done."

Obama explained that plans for Clinton's visit came about in the wake of a phone call between the president and Burmese opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in which the dissident activist encouraged the engagement, he said. News of Clinton's visit also came hours before Aung San Suu Kyi announced to cheers from her supporters in Yangon that her political party, the National League for Democracy, would register to run candidates in future elections, apparently with the agreement of Burma's government.

"Mother Suu, we support you!" the crowd in Yangon greeted her announcement, the New York Times reported.

"The pace of political change in Burma has exceeded all expectations," historian Thant Myint-U told the Times' Jackie Calmes and Thomas Fuller. "We're on the verge of a historic compromise."

Obama's decision to send Clinton came "after many months of engagement between the United States and Burma," a senior American official said in a background briefing in Bali Friday, given on condition of anonymity and shared with the White House press corps. "And we felt that this was an appropriate step given the movement by the Burmese government in a range of areas that we can discuss."

The Obama call with Aung San Sui Kyi marked an important turning point in U.S.-Burmese relations, the official explained. "The final piece as far as we were concerned that was very important to take place was for him to be able to call Aung San Suu Kyi last night to confirm that she was supportive of this engagement," the official said. "He called her from Air Force One.  He had a very substantive discussion with her where she was able to update him on her view of the political situation within Burma."

The call was Obama's first conversation with Kyi, a 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate who was freed from house arrest last year.

Installed earlier this year, Myanmar's "new government, led by Mr. Thein Sein, has freed a number of political prisoners, taken steps to liberalize the nation's heavily state-controlled economy and made overtures to Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi," the Times report said.

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