BALI, Indonesia – Detecting "flickers of progress" in the long-shunned nation of Burma, President Obama announced Friday that he will send Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the repressed country early next month, the first official in her position to visit in more than 50 years.
"We want to seize what could be an historic opportunity for progress and make it clear that if Burma continues to travel down the road of democratic reform, it can forge a new relationship with the United States of America," Obama said Friday during his diplomatic mission to southeast Asia.
In deepening his engagement with Burma, also known as Myanmar, the president first sought assurances from democracy leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. She spent 15 years on house arrest by the nation's former military dictators but is now in talks with the new civilian government about reforming the country.
The two spoke by phone on Thursday night while Obama was flying to Bali on Air Force One, a senior administration official said.
The administration sees Clinton's visit as a sign of success for Obama's policy on Burma, which was outlined in 2009 and focused on punishments and incentives to get the country's former military rulers to improve dire human rights conditions. The U.S. imposed new sanctions on Burma but made clear it was open to better relations if the situation changed.
"After years of darkness, we've seen flickers of progress in these last several weeks," Obama declared Friday.
Still, Obama said he has deep concerns about Burma's human rights record, treatment of ethnic minorities and closed nature of its society. Clinton's mission is to explore what the United States can do to support progress on political reform, individual rights and national reconciliation, the official said.
Officials said Clinton would travel to Burma Dec. 1.
The move came as he deepened ties with Asia, appealing to nations large and small for help with the American security agenda, and anxious to build some regional political balance to the rising might of China. He was trying to prod for some progress over the hotly contested South China Sea, one of the most vital shipping channels in the world.
A U.S. opening with Burma would also contribute to Obama's rebalancing goals, as Burma's military leaders for long had close ties to China. Beijing has poured billions of dollars of investment into Burma to operate mines, extract timber and build oil and gas pipelines. China has also been a staunch supporter of the country's politically isolated government and is Burma's second-biggest trading partner after Thailand.
But Burma has shown wariness of its imposing neighbor in recent months. In late September, the government of Burma president Thein Sein suspended a controversial $3.6 billion China-built hydropower dam project in northern Kachin State because it was "against the will of the people." The dam had been denounced by ethnic activists and environmentalists
Initial reaction to Obama's announcement from human rights and democracy movement officials was welcoming.
"The visit clearly demonstrates that United States is stepping up its engagement policy. It is better to see Burma's political situation on the ground rather than watch from a distance, We welcome the visit," said Aung Thein, a prominent lawyer and a member of Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party.
Benjamin Zawacki, Amnesty International's Southeast Asia researcher, welcomed the news of Clinton's visit as an opportunity to turn up the pressure on the government to address human rights abuses.
"We've been arguing a long time that political engagement and political pressure are not mutually exclusive," Zawacki told The Associated Press, adding that Clinton "should not miss the opportunity in this historic visit to pressure the government and speak very clearly that the human rights violations taking place there need to stop."
Burma, a former breadbasket of Southeast Asia, has suffered not just repressive government but poor economic management during nearly 50 years of military rule.
It is subject to wide-ranging trade, economic and political sanctions from the U.S. and other Western nations, enforced in response to brutal crackdowns on pro-democracy protesters in 1988 and 2007 and its refusal to hand power to pro-democracy leader Suu Kyi's party after the 1990 elections.
Now Burma's nominally civilian government, which took power in March, has declared its intention to liberalize the hard-line policies of the junta that preceded it.
It has taken some fledgling steps, such as easing censorship, legalizing labor unions, suspending an unpopular, China-backed dam project and working with Suu Kyi.
Obama will see Burma's president, Thein Sein, on Friday during a summit of Southeast Asian nations.
The announcement was the capstone to a day of diplomatic meetings on the sidelines of summits with Asian leaders, including India, Malaysia and the Philippines.
Promoting American trade, President Barack Obama on Friday presided over a deal that will send Boeing planes to an Indonesian company and create jobs back home, underscoring the value of the lucrative Asia-Pacific market to a president needing some good economic news.
Obama stood watch as executives of Boeing and Lion Air, a private carrier in Indonesia, signed a deal that amounts to Boeing's largest commercial plane order. Lion Air ordered 230 airplanes, and the White House said it would support tens of thousands of jobs in the U.S.
The U.S. president, eager for results to show for his diplomacy here, called the move "a remarkable example of the trade, commercial and investment opportunities that exist in the Asia Pacific." Jobs and the state of the economy are defining Obama's re-election bid.
Obama met with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, with whom Obama has developed a close relationship. He later met with Philippine President Benigno Aquino III and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak.
Obama made a point of meeting with Singh in Bali as part of his mission to devote attention to India, which the administration wants to play a larger role in Asia as the world's largest democracy. In brief remarks to reporters, Obama and Singh hailed the importance of their nations' work together in such areas as maritime security and the effort to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Obama arrived in this resort island late Thursday from Australia, where he announced a new military presence and sent Beijing a message that America "is all in" across the Asia-Pacific. The White House is determined to show that American leadership here, far from home, is wanted after a decade in which wars in Iraq and Afghanistan dominated attention.
Obama's Asia-Pacific tour has now brought him home twice -- first to Hawaii, where he was born, and now to the Indonesia, a nation of thousands of islands where he spent years as a boy. His stop in Bali is driven by his promise to be the first American president to take part in the East Asian Summit, a forum he wants to elevate as a force friendly to American interests.
He will attend a meeting with the heads of the Association of Southeast Asia Nations, or ASEAN, whose 10 members include host Indonesia, Vietnam, Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia. The group will expand for the East Asia Summit, a forum that also counts China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, New Zealand, Russia and the U.S. as members.