By Foreign Affairs Correspondent Jill Dougherty reporting from Yangon, Myanmar
Aung San Suu Kyi, icon of Myanmar's democracy movement, was looking for some advice from Hillary Clinton: Did the former first lady, former politician, and current secretary of state have any pointers on getting back into the public fray?
After nearly two decades in detention under Myanmar's military regime, Suu Kyi has registered her political party and intends to run in upcoming elections. She met Thursday night with Clinton at the residence of the U.S. chief of mission in Yangon for a quiet dinner before a more in-depth meeting scheduled for Friday at her own home, where she was held prisoner.
Clinton and Suu Kyi "fell into conversation very easily, very naturally," said a senior State Department official who described the evening to reporters traveling with Clinton. It was "as if they knew each other a long time."
The Nobel Peace Prize winner told Clinton that she has read the books the secretary and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, have written. In an ironic twist, she added that one of the few things she missed about being under house arrest is that she had a lot more time to read. Now, when she reads she's delving into books about military personalities."She thinks it's important to understand the military mentality," the official said. Suu Kyi is particularly interested in the lives of historical military figures who have gone into politics, including Dwight D. Eisenhower of the United States and Otto von Bismarck of Germany.
The dinner, on a balmy Yangon evening, featured a selection of Burmese delicacies, including curry dishes and a number of fish and chicken specialties prepared by a chef who has been working at the residence for many years. The conversation turned to meetings the secretary had earlier in the day in the capital, Naypyidaw, with Myanmar's president, Thein Sein, who is steering the nascent reform movement, and with other government officials.
Clinton asked Suu Kyi about her own discussions with the country's leaders and about her intentions to run for election, the senior official said.
The secretary publicly points to "first steps" in reform, things like freeing political prisoners, commitments to end military ties with North Korea, new approaches to ending ethnic violence, and general steps to improve civic life.
Clinton's view, the senior official said, is "let's see what transpires on the ground." Suu Kyi believes the government now is taking some genuine steps toward reform and that more steps could be possible, but she also thinks there are some actions that might be premature for the United States to take in return.
The full conversation took place behind closed doors, but reporters and photographers who were clustered at the entrance to the residence were able to overhear the two women, who previously had spoken only by phone.
Suu Kyi greeted Clinton with a simple phrase: "I am very happy to meet you."
Clinton responded: "I am very happy to meet you, finally."
Finally, after 20 years of detention, after years under military rule that might, just might, be changing.
And if it is, these two women will be at the heart of it.