Few could have imagined six months ago that Aung San Suu Kyi, the voice of Myanmar's pro-democracy movement and symbol of its long repression, would be the toast of Washington as she belatedly collects honors and accolades given out during the dark years she spent locked down in her homeland.
Elected to the National Assembly in April with a few dozen colleagues in her National League for Democracy party, Suu Kyi's dizzying journey from political prisoner to member of parliament has inspired celebration of Myanmar's dramatic political opening and hope for more democratic change to come.
The budding opposition she represents is minuscule -- 43 seats against 600-plus for delegates under the sway of the armed forces. And her country, known to many by its British colonial name, Burma, confronts widespread poverty, corruption and a tableau of bitter ethnic conflicts.
During her nearly three-week tour of the United States, the 67-year-old Suu Kyi is carrying a message that Burmese want to chart their own course but need U.S. and Western help to overcome nearly half a century of military rule and mismanagement. As the face of symbolic triumph, she has captured the attention and support of U.S. politicians across the spectrum.
She would do well during her speaking tour to share some of the spotlight with Myanmar President Thein Sein, Asia watchers advise. It was Sein, after all, who executed a palace coup in 2010, transforming an entrenched military hierarchy into reformists and sidelining those resisting the tide of change.
Since his inauguration 18 months ago, Sein has created the political space for a civilian opposition, released political prisoners, launched educational and technological reforms, invited foreign investment and rekindled relations with the West.
"Up until now she’s gotten the large majority of attention, but he is at the helm of the transition underway and deserves a great deal of credit for it," Suzanne DiMaggio, vice president of the Asia Society, said of Sein's understated role. "She has already said he's genuine and sincere in his commitment to reform, and I think as she moves through her visit there will be more recognition of the leadership role he's played."
Sein is due in New York next week for the U.N. General Assembly. In a departure from previous years, the U.S. State Department eased visa restrictions on the Burmese delegation in ranging beyond U.N. venues, in recognition of the positive changes underway in their country.
DiMaggio expects that the Obama administration may use the Suu Kyi and Sein visits to call for an end to a U.S. import ban that has strangled trade between the two countries. Lifting the ban requires congressional action, but both Republicans and Democrats have embraced the changes in Myanmar.
Suu Kyi met Tuesday with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who alluded to the difficulty of moving "from protest to politics, from symbol to stateswoman." Clinton also warned Myanmar to "guard against backsliding, because there are forces that would take the country in the wrong direction if given the chance."
Suu Kyi's visit is a reminder of how much more still lies ahead on the reform path, Clinton said, "from strengthening the rule of law in democratic institutions to addressing the challenges in many of the ethnic conflicts and in Rakhine state."
Rakhine has been the scene of violent clashes between Burmese soldiers and the stateless Muslim Rohingya people, with about 100,000 forced to flee in June to neighboring countries or go into hiding.
Suu Kyi has been criticized for her silence on the plight of the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities suffering repression by the military and the Burmese Buddhist majority. William McGowan, a Southeast Asia expert and author, wrote in a commentary for The Times on Sunday that Suu Kyi faces a tough challenge in balancing Burmese Buddhists' "sense of racial and religious superiority" with the democratic ideals of equality and human rights.
Suu Kyi alluded in her speech to the need to "build ethnic harmony," but made clear it would take time and assistance from more-developed democracies.
Other Asia analysts seemed inclined to cut the Myanmar government and Suu Kyi's opposition some slack in eradicating social and economic problems that have mounted over decades. Alana Golmei of India's Burma Center Delhi told The Times' Mark Magnier that Suu Kyi has to pick her fights carefully to avoid provoking the old guard.
The government's grant of amnesty to more than 500 prisoners this week included about 90 being jailed for their political views, a move hailed on one hand as an advance on the human rights front and lamented on the other as a sign that democracy and the rule of law remain elusive.
"They’re making progress across the board on the political front, though on the social and economic fronts things are going slowly," said Lex Rieffel, a Southeast Asia expert and visiting fellow of the Brookings Institution. "But I don’t know of anybody who expected them to make the progress that they have at this point."
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Photo: Nobel Peace Prize winner and pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington on Tuesday, where she described her country's emergence from decades of military dictatorship as a work in progress. Credit: Olivier Douliery / Abaca Press / MCT