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Reclusive Myanmar takes a step out of the shadows

Built from scratch by paranoid generals for maximum seclusion, Myanmar's remote capital is now gingerly stepping into the limelight as it hosts one of the world's most powerful political figures.

world Updated: Dec 01, 2011 14:24 IST

Built from scratch by paranoid generals for maximum seclusion, Myanmar's remote capital is now gingerly stepping into the limelight as it hosts one of the world's most powerful political figures.

In a telling sign of the tentative nature of reforms in the long-closed nation, Myanmar's leaders hailed Clinton in private but there was little public welcome for the first secretary of state to visit in a half century.

The government-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper offered only a page-two photograph and a short piece announcing Clinton's arrival, with the front page featuring a dry curriculum vitae of the visiting prime minister of Belarus.

Billboards made no mention of Clinton's visit but welcomed Prime Minister Mikhail Myasnikovich as well as visiting telecommunication ministers from Southeast Asia, who picked an unlikely destination considering the rudimentary phone and Internet network in the country formerly known as Burma.

Myanmar in 2005 abruptly moved its entire capital from the coastal hub of Yangon to a remote patch of farmland, for unstated reasons believed to include astrologers' advice and fears of a seaborne invasion by the United States.

The sprawling city now features an imposing museum devoted to gems, and glittering supermarkets, but most of its wide boulevards remain empty with only pictures to hint at future construction where water buffaloes now graze.

Hundreds of police fanned out across the capital Naypyidaw to guard Clinton, some waving their arms to shoo away non-existent traffic from cross-streets, as her motorcade cruised through a barren 12-lane highway to the presidential palace.

Workers in conical hats cut grass on their hands and knees below the palace, which rose like a pyramid above the quiet capital. Visitors walked by high-rising fountains into cavernous marble rooms of gold-leaf furniture and wood-carved Buddhist statues.

Despite the cautious public welcome, President Thein Sein -- a former general now at the vanguard of reforms -- smiled broadly as he greeted Clinton and saluted what he called a "new chapter in relations".

Myanmar's security guards were surprisingly relaxed as foreign and local journalists swarmed into the palace, elbowing one another for the historic shot of Thein Sein and Clinton. Authorities imposed no unusual restrictions on reporters, although Myanmar officials did not speak to the press.

And while some observers compare Naypyidaw to North Korea's other-worldly capital Pyongyang, the mood among the general public was clearly welcoming, even in a city devoted to the government and military.

"We are so proud to have her here. This is the first time in 50 years," said a worker at Clinton's hotel where staff welcomed the US delegation with cool towels and fresh watermelon juice.

A taxi driver looked visibly excited upon learning that his passenger was from the United States, exclaiming in what appeared to go beyond requisite politeness: "USA - very good!"

"I support Aung San Suu Kyi. We want democracy," he said of Myanmar's opposition leader who was freed last year after spending most of the past two decades under house arrest.

A senior US official travelling with Clinton said the United States was pleasantly surprised by Myanmar's cooperation on the visit, crediting the government with issuing visas more easily than at any time in recent memory.

"They're generally uncomfortable with (security agents), with guns. They've been very accommodating in a variety of the areas that we're seeking, what we would call hospitality," the official said on condition of anonymity.

"That's important to us, but what's really important to us is what are the steps that they're going to take (on political reform)."

However historic the visit, the US delegation will be left only with memories -- Myanmar is still subject to strict US sanctions, making any souvenir shopping a no-no.

First Published: Dec 01, 2011 14:22 IST