YANGON, Myanmar (AP) -- U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Thursday challenged the leaders of Myanmar to continue and expand upon recent reforms, calling for the release of all political prisoners, an end to violent campaigns against ethnic minorities and a breaking of military ties with North Korea.
"We believe that any political prisoner anywhere should be released," Clinton told reporters during the first visit to this long-isolated nation by the top U.S. diplomat in more than 50 years. "One political prisoner is one too many in our view."
Clinton made her comments ahead of a meeting with the most famous political prisoner of all, opposition leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who was released last year after two decades of on-and-off imprisonment and has said she will run in upcoming elections. Clinton and Suu Kyi had a private one-on-one dinner on Thursday and were to see each other again more formally on Friday.
Meeting earlier Thursday with President Thein Sein and other senior government officials in the capital of Naypyidaw, Clinton offered a small package of rewards for steps it had already taken but made clear that more must be done and said the U.S. was not ready to lift sanctions on the country. She hand-delivered letters from President Barack Obama to Thein Sein and Suu Kyi in which Obama expressed hope that relations could further improve.
"I came to assess whether the time is right for a new chapter in our shared history," Clinton said, adding that the U.S. was ready to further improve relations with the civilian government in the Southeast Asian nation -- also known as Burma -- but only if it stays on the path of democratization.
In a series of modest first steps, she announced that Washington would allow Myanmar's participation in a U.S.-backed grouping of Mekong River countries; no longer block enhanced cooperation between the country and the International Monetary Fund; and support intensified U.N. health, microfinance and counternarcotics programs.
A senior U.S. official said Thein Sein had outlined his government's plans for reform in a 45-minute presentation in which he acknowledged that Myanmar lacked a recent tradition of democracy and openness. He asked for U.S. help in making the transition from military to full civilian rule, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the private diplomatic exchange.
Clinton replied that she was visiting because the U.S. was "encouraged by the steps that you and your government have taken to provide for your people."
Yet, she also made clear that those steps must be consolidated and enlarged if the U.S. is to consider easing near-blanket economic sanctions that block almost all American commercial transactions with Myanmar. "While measures already taken may be unprecedented and certainly welcome, they are just a beginning," she told reporters.
"We're not at the point yet where we can consider lifting sanctions that we have in place because of our ongoing concerns about policies that have to be reversed," Clinton said. "But any steps that the government takes will be carefully considered and will be matched."
She called for the release of political prisoners and an end to brutal ethnic violence that has ravaged the nation for decades. She also warned the country's leadership to break suspected illicit military, nuclear and ballistic missile cooperation with North Korea that may violate U.N. sanctions. "Better relations with the United States will only be possible if the entire government respects the international consensus against the spread of nuclear weapons ... and we support the government's stated intention to sever military ties with North Korea," she said.
In his presentation, Thein Sein vowed that Myanmar would uphold its U.N. obligations with respect to North Korea, according to the senior U.S. official. He also told Clinton that Myanmar was actively considering signing a new agreement with the U.N. nuclear watchdog that would allow unfettered inspections of atomic sites in the country, the official said.
Nyan Win, a spokesman for Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party, welcomed the U.S. package of rewards and said, "The incentives will help promote better relations and a better future for the country and I hope the government will expand its reform process."
Clinton rejected the idea that the U.S. outreach to Myanmar was partially motivated by the growing influence of China. "We are not viewing this in light of any competition with China," she said. "We are viewing it as an opportunity for us to re-engage here."
"We welcome positive constructive relations between China and her neighbors. We think that is in China's interest as well as in the neighborhood's interest," she said.
Recalling Obama's mention of "flickers of progress" in Myanmar when he announced that Clinton would visit the country, Clinton urged the leadership not to allow them to "be stamped out."
"It will be up to the leaders and the people to fan flickers of progress into flames of freedom that light the path toward a better future," she said. "That -- and nothing less -- is what it will take for us to turn a solitary visit into a lasting partnership."
Before dinner with Suu Kyi, Clinton toured the Shwedagon Pagoda, a 2,500-year-old Buddhist temple with a massive golden stupa.
Despite the historic nature of Clinton's visit, enthusiasm has been muted within Myanmar.
Chan Tun, a 91-year-old veteran politician and a retired ambassador to China, said: "This is a very critical visit because U.S. will understand Myanmar better through engagement. U.S. engagement will also help Myanmar's dependence on China."
But Clinton's presence has been overshadowed by the arrival Thursday of the prime minister of Belarus and his wife, to whom two large welcoming signs were erected at the airport and the road into the city. No such displays welcomed Clinton.
The Belarus Prime Minister made the front page of Thursday's edition of the government-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper. Clinton's visit was mentioned in a two-paragraph story on page 2.
Still, some in Myanmar welcomed the attention from the U.S. "I watched the arrival of Ms. Clinton on Myanmar TV last night," 35-year-old taxi driver Thein Zaw said. "I am very happy that Ms. Clinton is visiting our country because America knows our small country, whether it is good or bad."