Editor's note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer/correspondent, she is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television."
Atlanta (CNN) -- The announcement on Friday that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will travel to Myanmar next month came as a stunning surprise, a sign that human rights advocates, Burmese pro-democracy activists and the West's political strategists may stand within reach of a major victory.
It's too soon to know how this will turn out. Burma's rulers have a track record that justifies continued skepticism. But it's not too soon to acknowledge there is reason for optimism.
If one of the world's most repressive countries genuinely moves away from decades of military rule and brutal anti-democratic practices, it will mark a rare diplomatic success for the Obama administration, one that will make China extremely uneasy.
Success in Myanmar, if it comes, will cap a series of moves by Washington to bolster the U.S. presence in China's neighborhood.
Clinton gave notice that the United States is turning its sights from the Middle East to Asia in a recent article entitled "America's Pacific Century." Obama confirmed the strategy during his Asia tour, declaring the United States a "Pacific power." It all adds up to a visible challenge to Chinese dominance.
If Myanmar turns away from Beijing and becomes a friend of Washington, it would fortify that strategy. But first, Burma needs to prove it has decided to stop trampling on the human rights of its people and will allow the introduction of meaningful democratic change. There is still a long way to go before that transformation can be confirmed.
The people of Burma, renamed Myanmar by a despotic junta, came under the generals' rule half a century ago. Over the years, the country endured constant armed conflict between the military and members of ethnic minorities. Military incompetence, misrule and corruption turned what was once a prosperous nation into a land of pervasive fear and grinding poverty.
All along, the Burmese demanded freedom and the authorities responded by killing and imprisoning them.
In 1988, a student movement took to the streets calling for democracy. By an accident of history, a woman named Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of the country's hero of independence from the British Empire, was visiting from abroad. Suu Kyi became the leader of the movement. Soldiers killed at least 3,000 protesters that year, and more killings, torture and imprisonment would come in subsequent uprisings.
In a 1990 election, Suu Kyi led her party, the National League for Democracy to victory at the polls. But the generals rejected the results and arrested her along with scores of her party's leaders.
Since then, Suu Kyi, who later won the Nobel Peace Prize, has spent most of her time under house arrest. She became a powerful symbol, rejecting offers to leave the country and enduring extraordinary hardships without relenting on her demands.
The international community backed her determination, imposing stiff economic sanctions and calling for democratic reform as a condition for normalizing relations.
Frozen out by the West, Myanmar turned to Beijing. Resource-hungry China poured billions into Burma, mining the jungles and propping up the generals.
Then something unexpected happened.
A year ago, the generals again held an election. President Obama called the rigged exercise a "sham," and Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy boycotted the polls. The result was a parliament in which most members are soldiers, retired military or supporters of the armed forces.
After the election, a retired general, Thein Sein, became president. Thein Sein wears civilian clothes, but few people expected real change.
Then Sein started making moves that took the skeptics by surprise. Even Suu Kyi, now out of house arrest, said she found some of the government's moves "to a certain extent encouraging."
Suu Kyi is a clever tactician and a truly heroic figure. During my travels inside Burma and in the Asian refugee camps where hundreds of thousands of Burmese live, the mere mention of her name has always had an electrifying impact.
The Obama administration, from its earliest days, started exploring a change of policy, exploring engagement with the regime and coordinating with Suu Kyi.
Last Thursday night, President Obama reportedly spoke on the phone with Suu Kyi from Air Force One. Shortly after, he announced he was sending Clinton to Burma. Moments later, Suu Kyi announced she and the National League for Democracy would stop boycotting the political process and participate in the next elections.
It all amounts to an extraordinary transformation of the political scene in a country that for decades has frustrated the West's diplomats and its own people's aspirations.
There is every reason to remain cautious. Myanmar has scored a huge prize by securing a visit by Hillary Clinton. The presence of a U.S. secretary of state for the first time in more than five decades gives a stamp of legitimacy to what remains an illegitimate government. The authorities have released about 200 political prisoners and promised to free about 500. They still hold about 2,000, according to human rights groups.
Washington's wish to check China's growing power creates an incentive to accept the Burmese government's claim. If the regime is rewarded with good relations with the West without having brought democracy and respect for human rights, then the Obama administration -- and the people of Burma -- will have suffered another defeat. Still, the combined efforts of Suu Kyi and the Obama administration, and the signs of progress, mean Burma may still provide everyone but China with some happy surprises.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Frida Ghitis.