BALI, Indonesia (AP) - Detecting "flickers of progress" in the long shunned and sanctioned nation of Myanmar, President Barack Obama announced Friday that he will send Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to the repressed country 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 exploring a breakthrough engagement with Myanmar, also known as Burma, the president first sought assurances of support 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.
By sending in his chief diplomat, Obama's is out to acknowledge and accelerate fledgling reforms in Myanmar, a calculated political risk in a place where repression is still common. He warned that if the country fails to commit to a true opening of its society, "it will continue to face sanctions and isolation."
Obama said that the current environment is a rare opening that could help millions of people "and that possibility is too important to ignore."
"The visit clearly demonstrates that United States is stepping up its engagement policy," said Aung Thein, a prominent lawyer and a member of Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party. "It is better to see Myanmar's political situation on the ground rather than watch from a distance, We welcome the visit."
The administration sees Clinton's visit as a sign of success for Obama's policy on Myanmar, 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 Myanmar but made clear it was open to better relations if the situation changed.
Now Myanmar'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.
"After years of darkness, we've seen flickers of progress in these last several weeks," Obama declared Friday.
Officials said Clinton would travel to Myanmar Dec. 1.
The move came as Obama deepened ties with Asia, appealing to nations large and small for help with the American security agenda. Nearing the end of a nine-day trip across the Pacific, Obama was trying to prod for some progress over the hotly contested South China Sea, one of the most vital shipping channels in the world.
It also came as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations decided that Myanmar would chair the regional bloc in 2014, a significant perch that Myanmar was forced to skip in 2006 because of intense criticism of its rights record.
A U.S. opening with Myanmar 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 Myanmar 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 Myanmar's second-biggest trading partner after Thailand.
Senior administration officials, briefing reporters Friday, stressed that the new engagement with Myanmar was not about China. They said the Obama administration consulted with China about the move and said they expected China to be supportive. They argued that China in fact wants to see a stable Burma on its borders, so that it doesn't risk problems with refugees or other results of political instability.
Human rights groups welcomed Obama's announcement as an opportunity to compel further reforms.
"We've been arguing a long time that political engagement and political pressure are not mutually exclusive," Benjamin Zawacki, Amnesty International's Southeast Asia researcher, 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."
Elaine Pearson, the deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said the Burmese government must realize that a visit by Clinton "puts them on notice, not lets them off the hook for their continually atrocious human rights record."
Myanmar, 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.
Obama will see Burma's president during a summit of Southeast Asian nations. The two have met before, at an ASEAN meeting in Singapore, when Thein Sein was prime minister.
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. Administration officials said Obama raised the issue of Myanmar in his meetings with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Philippine President Benigno Aquino III. Officials said they expected ASEAN members to be supportive.
Earlier, in a move promoting American trade, Obama 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.
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 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.