Clinton and Aung San Suu Kyi pledge to work together for Burma democracy

US secretary of state reiterates call for Burmese regime to end repression during historic meeting with opposition leader

Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, and Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader, have made an unprecedented public vow to work together to promote democratic reforms in the isolated and repressive south Asian state.

Ending a historic three-day visit to Burma, the first by a US secretary of state in more than 50 years, Clinton and Aung San Suu Kyi held hands on the porch of the lakeside home where the campaigner has spent much of the past two decades under house arrest. "If we move forward together I am confident there will be no turning back on the road to democracy," Aung San 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."

Clinton's visit follows a series of tentative reforms by Burma's new nominally civilian government. In the last year media restrictions have been loosened, some political prisoners released and elections held. The polls were heavily rigged to give the party backed by the army a massive majority and were boycotted by Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy.

Clinton repeated her call for the regime to free all political prisoners, end campaigns against ethnic minorities and respect the rule of law. Burma remains under US and European sanctions, and western officials say the regime's desire to see them lifted has prompted the recent changes. Clinton, who has indicated the sanctions are likely to stay for the foreseeable future, said nonetheless that the US was "prepared to go further if reforms maintain momentum".

However, referring to "serious setbacks and grave disappointments over the past decades" she said she remained cautious.

Analysts have also seen the trip as a bid by Washington to roll back Beijing's influence in Burma and in the region.

In recent years, the Burmese regime has become close to China developing a "dense web" of economic and other ties. Clinton announced that the US would spend about $1.2m (£760,000) on healthcare initiatives and assistance to landmine victims, particularly in rural areas in Burma.

Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party swept 1990 elections that were ignored by the regime, now plans to run in parliamentary by-elections within months.

On Thursday night the Clinton and Aung San Suu Kyi spent three hours dining together at the residence of the American charge d'affaires in Rangoon. One senior US official said the event marked the beginning of what appeared to be a "very warm friendship" between the two women.

Locals say the reforms have made no difference and have been limited in extent. The military still dominates most institutions and has vast financial interests.

In central Rangoon on Friday, Burma's most famous land rights activist, lawyer Phoe Phyu, was in court on charges of unlawful assembly. In October, Phyu, who has been tortured during previous detentions, led a small peaceful farmer's protest against the seizure of farmers' land by some of the country's leading companies.

"I do not think Hillary Clinton or Aung San Suu Kyi alone can solve this problem," he told the Guardian on his way to court. "I am afraid but we will keep smiling no matter what threat we face."

Sara Olsen is a pseudonym.


Jason Burke in Delhi, Sara Olsen and agencies in Rangoon

The GuardianTramp

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