Friday, December 2, 2011

Rangoon, Dec 2

We're wrapping up the Burma trip. It's been amazing -- we spent the morning at Aung San Suu Kyi's house, where she was under house arrest for close to 20 years.

Its a slightly dilapidated villa on the shores of a large lake, the same one that the American nut swam across several years ago in an attempt to "save" Suu Kyi. There is now a chain link fence topped with barbed wire along the shore line, but the rest of the house looks pretty untouched although Suu Kyi's people said they had been trying to fix it up for Clinton's arrival. The new paintjob seemed to limited to the veranda where she and Clinton made their public remarks.

We arrived before Clinton, whose motorcade came in about 15 minutes after we got there. It was impossible to see Aung San Suu Kyi (well anything except the flower decorating her hair do) as she welcomed Clinton to the house, and then they both went inside.

It was sunny and extremely hot, so we wandered around looking for shade. Along the way I encountered Aung San Suu Kyi's dog (see picture above). The name is unpronounceable and, even tho it looked mighty cute, Suu Kyi's aides said it has a nasty temper.

After their talks the two women -- the most famous female political figures in the world? -- walked around Suu Kyi's garden and then came to the veranda to make their statements. In person you can really see why Suu Kyi is compared to Mandela...she is as beautiful as he is handsome, and just as patrician. She and Clinton held hands as they addressed the media, and both said exactly the right things about democracy, halting rights violations, and making sure that Burma's ethnic conflicts are brought to a close.

After they finished it was an absolute scramble to call in the quotes. We are wrestling with satellite phones here...regular cellphones don't work here ... so every call is a gamble to see if the phone will find the satellite and the call will go through. And you have to call over and over again because the line keeps dropping, so I was dictating essentially a sentence at a time to the Reuters office in Bangkok to get the key quotes in.

We did that in the herky-jerky minibus headed to the ambassador's residence. This is one of the best looking U.S. ambassadorial setups I've seen -- also on a lake, great gardens going down the water, a tennis court, and a lovely house with teak paneling, ceiling fans and simple furniture. Looks like a good place to live.

My friend Neil Hamilton made me smile today with a message saying that he'd heard the design esthetic here is "Myanamarist"...which I guess is true.

The scene here is the view from my hotel window this morning as dawn broke over Rangoon. We haven't been able to see much of the city at all, but at least it looks like a real city unlike the brutal made-to-order capital. In the evening, the Shwedagon Pagoda is lit up in the distance and bars and restaurants twinkle beside the lakes that dot the city. The people seem reserved but friendly, and there were lots of smiles. But I don't think most people really knew who Clinton is or what this visit is all about. The state media has not been playing it very strong (not as strong as their front page story about the visiting prime minister of Belarus!) so they must be mystified as this great screeching motorcade plows through the city.

We are waiting for another Clinton press conference, and then its back on the plane for the 22+ hour trip home. I'm going to try to write up a "reporter's notebook" on the trip to file from our stop in Yokohama.

UPDATE: here's a link to the reporter's notebook piece

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Naypyitaw and Rangoon, Dec 1

We're in Rangoon...what a day. Its been long and fascinating -- fighting with sat phones always adds to the frisson.

I'm just adding this now to show a pictures of the Pagoda visit Clinton made this evening before heading off to dinner with Aung San Suu Kyi (their first face to face meeting).

Here's the story I did on it -- I'll try to fill out more detail tomorrow

Security goes barefoot with Clinton in Myanmar

By Andrew Quinn

YANGON (Reuters) - U.S. security went barefoot on Thursday as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton toured one of Myanmar's most revered shrines, a towering golden pagoda that is the symbol of a country seeking fresh rapprochement with the West.

Clinton arrived at the Shwedagon Pagoda shortly after arriving in Myanmar's main commercial city, Yangon, and took off her shoes to follow respectful Buddhist tradition at a site rich with religious and patriotic significance for the country also known as Burma.

Clinton's U.S. diplomatic security detail quickly followed suit, while barefoot agents in business suits fanned out across the huge complex of spires and Buddha statues, muttering into their radios.

A crowd of tourists and local visitors applauded as Clinton made the rounds, stopping to make an offering of flowers in front of the Gold Buddha statue, one of the centerpieces of the elaborate pagoda site, as well as to pause and hit a huge bell three times with a gold-adorned staff.

"Hitting the bell means she is sharing the merits of today's events for both of our countries," said Phone Myint, one of the tour guides at the shrine which dates back as far as the 6th century.

The visit represented an incongruous mash-up of official Washington, Asian tradition and modern-day tourism, with Clinton and her entire staff of diplomats, advisers and the travelling press all shuffling shoe-less past Buddha statues decorated with neon halos and stalked by feral cats.

The pagoda stop was also one of Clinton's few chances to see anything of modern-day Myanmar, which is implementing tentative political reforms as it seeks to improve ties with Washington after decades of estrangement.

She is the first U.S. secretary of state to visit in more than 50 years, and U.S. officials say they still know little about a country many view as both hermetic and hard to read.

After finishing her pagoda tour, officials handed out moistened towelettes so the U.S. delegation could clean their feet.

Clinton later left her hotel for a dinner at the U.S. charge d'affaires residence with Aung San Suu Kyi, the veteran pro-democracy leader and Nobel peace laureate who has endorsed Washington's outreach to Myanmar's new military-backed civilian leaders.

The pair - arguably the two most famous women in the world - will dine on their own during their first face-to-face meeting, comparing notes on Myanmar's political reforms and the country's halting steps to re-engage with the rest of the world.

Earlier in the day, Clinton got an up-close view of another side of Myanmar, meeting President Thein Sein at his enormous presidential palace in the new capital of Naypyitaw - an almost deserted city established on orders of the former junta several years ago.

Clinton was the first senior U.S. official ever to visit the presidential office, and her car zipped along a deserted, 20-lane highway to reach the complex, a vast concoction of marble and chandeliers set on a bluff and protected by what looked like a moat.

Here's a picture of the palace: you don't really get a sense of how over the top it is, but it is.