Asia

Connecting with Aung San Suu Kyi

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Media captionHillary Clinton met Aung San Suu Kyi at the latter's Rangoon home

They could not have had more different lives or be more different in personality and outlook.

But when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi came face to face for the first time on Thursday evening in Rangoon after years of reading about each other's struggles, fears and dreams, there appeared to be a moment of instant recognition.

By coincidence, they wore matching outfits for the occasion - white Asian-style jackets, their hair tied at the back, Mrs Suu Kyi with flowers pinned in her low pony tail.

Mrs Clinton, one of the world's most famous and powerful women with a commanding, charismatic personality had, perhaps for the first time, met her match in the equally world-famous pro-democracy activist with a quiet demeanour and vulnerability hiding a steely determination.

Ms Suu Kyi, a Nobel peace laureate revered in her country and inspiring to millions around the world, political royalty treated with deference by her entourage, found herself in the presence of a woman her equal.

The secretary of state, who often greets people with a booming "Hello'', adopted a more subdued tone as she welcomed Ms Suu Kyi for dinner at the US diplomatic mission in Rangoon. Ms Suu Kyi appeared slightly nervous shaking hands with her host in the doorway of the US diplomatic mission where she had come for a private dinner.

While both women were looking forward to finally meeting each other, if only to exchange political views and discuss Burma's future, there was no telling whether there would be real chemistry in person.

In an interview with the BBC, Mrs Clinton later said that meeting Ms Suu Kyi felt "very familiar, perhaps because I have certainly followed her over the years and have communicated with her directly and indirectly. "

It was "like seeing a friend you hadn't seen for a very long time even though it was our first meeting" she added.

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Media captionHillary Clinton says meeting Aung San Suu Kyi was a "a great honour and delight"

In the packed travel schedule of the US secretary of state, there is rarely the time - or perhaps even the desire - for a lengthy one-on-one dinner. But a table with two settings was laid out on the veranda of the US diplomatic mission and a dinner of Burmese food, including some of Ms Suu Kyi's favourites, was cooked up for them by the mission's chef.

Over three hours, the two women - both in their mid 60s - had time to get to know each other informally.

Rapport with authority

Ms Suu Kyi said she still had a poster of the 1995 UN conference on women in Beijing given to her by then US ambassador to the UN Madeleine Albright, who visited Burma in 1995. Mrs Clinton, then First Lady, gave her groundbreaking speech about women's rights at the conference, and she, Mrs Albright and others signed the poster to give to Ms Suu Kyi.

The Burmese activist told Mrs Clinton she'd read her autobiography, Living History, as well as books written by former President Clinton.

Mrs Clinton presented her dinner guest with rare editions of books authored and signed by Eleanor Roosevelt. She also gave Ms Suu Kyi's dog a dog bowl and chew toy. In return, Mrs Clinton received a silver necklace fashioned out of a traditional ethnic necklace by Ms Suu Kyi.

Meeting again on Friday morning for a more formal occasion, the two women were ready to get down to business.

When Mrs Clinton's black limousine arrived at Ms Suu Kyi's home, where the democracy activist was held under house arrest for almost two decades, the two women greeted each other with a kiss on the cheek before sitting for talks with their respective entourages.

A US official said part of the conversation centred on how to connect the country's leaders with the opposition and the outside world as a way to keep the reforms moving forward. Burma's new civilian government is made up of former military junta leaders whose apparent decision to open up the country has surprised everybody.

Ms Suu Kyi has been developing a rapport with Burma's President Thein Sein - a former top military commander - and has indicated she trusts his intention to reform. She told Mrs Clinton she'd been reading books about military men who had become politicians, including US President Dwight Eisenhower.

Mrs Clinton shared her own impressions of her long meeting with Thein Sein on Thursday in the remote, slightly surreal, administrative capital Nay Pyi Taw. Before travelling to Burma, the secretary of state had said she wanted to gauge for herself whether the country's leadership was serious about change.

Long and messy?

In public, Mrs Clinton wouldn't be drawn on what she thought of Thein Sein, saying she judged people by their actions. She did appear to have made a connection with the president's wife, chatting to her intently on the way to lunch and again on the way out to the car.

Burmese journalists took pictures of her black limousine parked outside the presidential palace surrounded by a moat. The president, his wife and their entourage, stood by on the steps watching the departing motorcade drive away over the bridge. Thein Sein, a small bespectacled man wearing the traditional skirt-like Burmese lungi, waved back to occupants in one of the vans, looking slightly forlorn in front of his giant marble palace.

While Burma's president has said he is determined to pursue reforms, observers believe he doesn't have the temperament needed to push beyond the initial stages of a process that will be long and could be messy, since not everybody in his government is on board.

After their meeting at Ms Suu Kyi's lakeside home, Mrs Clinton and Mrs Suu Kyi spoke to the media.

The pro-democracy activist, whose party won elections in 1990 when she was under house arrest, has said she will run in the upcoming parliamentary elections. There were hints of an electoral campaign in her statement as she called for equal rights for all ethnic communities in this "union of many people".

In the BBC interview, Mrs Clinton said she did not give Ms Suu Kyi any advice about running a campaign but that they discussed how challenging a political process can be.

Despite Ms Suu Kyi's win in 1990, the military junta did not recognise the results and has remained in power ever since.

Standing on the porch of her ageing two-storey home, Ms Suu Kyi clasped hands with Mrs Clinton as she thanked the US for its help and its ''calibrated" approach to re-engagement with Burma's government.

Mrs Clinton tentatively leaned forward to hug the diminutive activist and was embraced back warmly. The two women then exploded in laughter before walking away together, like two long-lost sisters.