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Clinton to get first top-level peek at Myanmar in over 50 years

Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (left) shakes hands with Myanmar Deputy Foreign Minister Myo Myint upon her arrival in Naypyidaw Wednesday.


Updated at 5:15 a.m. ET: Hillary Clinton arrives in Myanmar, becoming the first U.S. secretary of state to visit the country in decades.

YANGON, Myanmar – U Nine Nine has spent 17 of the past 21 years behind bars as a political prisoner, and on the face of it, he would seem to have little reason to be upbeat about Myanmar's recent reforms.

"Time will tell," he told me. "But I'm cautiously optimistic. It is difficult for them to turn back now [from the recent changes]. The next few weeks will be crucial."

After 49 years of totalitarian rule, Myanmar’s military junta is beginning to loosen up.

Just last November, in what was widely condemned as a rigged election, Myanmar's ruling generals exchanged their uniforms for civilian suits. There was little hope for change.   

Yet beginning in October of this year, the government has introduced a series of dizzying changes: The new government led by a former general, Thein Sein, has eased censorship, released political prisoners, introduced a limited right to strike and protest, and started a dialogue with the pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi that has convinced her not only of their good intentions, but also to run for what she had dismissed as a rubber-stamp parliament. 

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is flying in here Wednesday to judge the "Burma Spring" for herself – she is the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit the country in more than 50 years.

Political party back in action
The recent developments are cause for excitement at Nine Nine’s office. He runs an assistance program for political prisoners and is also in charge of the Yangon division of the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party of pro-democracy leader Suu Kyi, which has just decided to contest elections again.

Suu Kyi, who spent 15 years under house arrest, is now planning to stand in an election before the end of the year.

I met Nine Nine at the bustling office of the NLD, which is close to Yangon's famous Shwedagon Pagoda. He told me that by his calculations around 290 political prisoners have so far been released, but close to 500 remain in jail.

Ian Williams / NBC News

Cleaning up at the Shwedagon pagoda ahead of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit to Myanmar.

There's a real buzz at the NLD office, but they are quick to remind you that they won the last freely contested election, in 1990, by a landslide, only to have the result annulled by the generals. That heralded the beginning of Nine Nine's first stint in prison.

Yet something is stirring in Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma.

‘Hillary repairs’
Myanmar authorities have thrown the door open to international journalists to cover Clinton’s trip. It's the first time that I have been issued an official visa in 10 years, and while they didn't quite roll out the red carpet, our welcome has been warm.

My guide pointed to the hasty road repairs on the drive in from the airport. "Hillary repairs," he called them. And later, on a visit to the Shwedagon Pagoda, I came across a group of giggling young women scrubbing the floor. "Hillary Clinton is coming," they said.

Along one of the city's many dilapidated streets, I came across a stall heaving with photographs of Suu Kyi and her father, the independence hero Aung San. That would have been a dangerous act of defiance and almost unheard of just a few weeks ago, but no longer. It was clearly still a novelty, though, and I watched as passersby stopped and pointed out the signs to friends. 

An elderly monk stopped me in the street and handed me an old currency note, no longer in circulation, but sporting a picture of Aung San. "For you. A real hero," he told me, before moving off into the crowd. A monk-led uprising four years ago was crushed by the generals.

Local newspapers, which have been carrying prominent stories about Suu Kyi – again unheard of until very recently – were carrying upbeat features Tuesday about the desire for closer relations with the U.S. (and by implication, a little loosening of their dependence on China, which goes down well in Washington these days).  

Real change?
There certainly does seem to be hope here, but many remain wary. Can one of the world's most thuggish regimes really change its stripes so quickly?

Clinton will meet with President Thein Sein on Thursday and will likely push for faster democratic change. She'll meet Suu Kyi on Friday to gauge more fully how Myanmar's pro-democracy leader judges the reforms, and whether an easing of international sanctions might be merited.

Among the former political prisoners released so far is Zarganar, Myanmar's most famous comedian, who got into hot water for poking fun at the generals. He was jailed for criticizing their response to Cyclone Nargis, a 2008 disaster that left 135,000 people dead or missing. 

On his release from prison he reportedly cracked another joke at the expense of the president. This time he got away with it, and is expected to be among those briefing Clinton on Friday about the intentions of the former generals, not known for humor or compassion, but who just might have decided that change and dialogue is the only way forward for impoverished Myanmar.