THE WEEKEND BEFORE THE TRIP, the secretary took home piles of books and videos about Naypyidaw. So perhaps she is more prepared than we are for this Trump-esque capital city, which rose up suddenly in 2005 in response, some say, to premonitions from soothsayers that foreigners would attack and that this was an easier spot from which to defend the country than the previous capital, Rangoon. The white-marble and gold palace compound, which the secretary will be visiting tomorrow, comes complete with a moat and drawbridges.
For tonight, it is off to the Thingaha Hotel, where Clinton and her entourage are the only guests. As her motorcade pulls out of the airport, it passes a row of rice farmers camped out on the grass to see her. They wave. She beams and waves back. The drive to the hotel is on one of the city’s new highways, a road that, except for Clinton’s motorcade and an occasional truck filled with workers, is empty. Kurt Campbell, an assistant secretary of state, had promised white elephants, but so far all we’ve seen are weird dogs and some water buffalo.
Few people actually live in Naypyidaw, and it seems as if all of them work at our hotel. When the secretary’s motorcade pulls into the resort, guards bow. Waiters and waitresses, bearing trays of watermelon juice in Champagne flutes, bow. The secretary greets them like long-lost friends. A few of the young waitresses are crying, and one tells me in broken English, her voice cracking and tears running down her face, that Hillary Clinton is their “only hope.”
Burma began cutting itself off from the rest of the world after a military coup in 1962. As conditions in the country grew worse, strong U.S. sanctions followed. There have been decades of severe poverty, civil war, corruption, suppression of free speech and unconscionable human rights violations, including child labor, recruitment of child soldiers, human trafficking and systemic violence against women. As William Wan of the Washington Post has reported, activists assert that rape has been used as a weapon of war against political opponents and that women living near the Thai-Burmese border have said their sex organs were burned by soldiers.
After half a century of military rule and atrocities, this gorgeous country—once considered “the jewel of Asia”—has shown signs of reform, most notably in releasing hundreds of political prisoners. These include, after 15 years of house arrest, the heroic opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is as iconic in Asia as Clinton is in America. (The State Department uses the old name, Burma, rather than Myanmar, as a show of support for Suu Kyi’s party.) The two have forged a long-distance phone friendship. That Suu Kyi, a woman who was imprisoned by her own government, has faith in the possibility of real change in Burma helped inspire President Obama (who had his own long phone jag with Suu Kyi, during which she famously asked about his dog, Bo) to send the secretary of state on this mission.
Clinton is here to finally meet Suu Kyi but also to take the temperature of the Burmese government, starting with the new president, Thein Sein. He and his officials have a long way to go to get back in the U.S.’s good graces. Among many other things, they need to sever military ties with North Korea, release the rest of the political prisoners and begin to enforce civil rights. As a woman who follows her gut, Clinton wants to see if the promises he’s made seem genuine—genuine enough for the U.S. to restore full diplomatic relations. But she is really here for the waitress.