WASHINGTON -- Myanmar’s pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, began her first visit to the United States in four decades by urging Washington to begin lifting remaining economic sanctions, which she credited for helping pressure the authoritarian government to allow vastly greater freedoms.
“I think our people must start to take responsibility for our own destiny,” Suu Kyi said to a packed auditorium at the U.S. Institute of Peace after she met Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at the State Department. “We should not depend on U.S. sanctions to keep up the momentum for democracy.”
Clinton warmly introduced and embraced Suu Kyi before the speech, her first public appearance on a 17-day visit to the United States.
Suu Kyi’s release from 15 years under house arrest in November 2010, and her election in April to parliament, were key factors in the White House decision to begin to ease unilateral sanctions in May and to step up engagement with the nominally civilian government.
Suu Kyi previously had urged the Obama administration to wait for signs that the new rulers of Myanmar, also known as Burma, were fully committed to democratic reforms. The White House, which has already allowed U.S. companies to resume investing in Myanmar, is now weighing whether to lift a ban on imports.
That time has now come, the Nobel laureate said in a soft, lilting voice.
“We are not yet at the end of our struggle,” she said. “But we are getting there. We have passed the first hurdle. There are many more hurdles to go.”
She praised the Myanmar government for releasing several hundred prisoners this week, including 90 who she said were political prisoners. “By our count, about 200 political prisoners remain,” she said. “All must be released.”
She said her nation, one of the poorest in Asia, needs “practical help” from the U.S. “We need great help with education, with health and with building up democratic institutions,” she said.
On the issue of whether to call her country Burma, as it was traditionally known, or Myanmar, its official new name, she said, “There are people who refer to Burma as Myanmar, and it is entirely a matter of choice,” she said.
In her introduction, Clinton repeated U.S. concerns about the plight of political prisoners in the country and violence against ethnic groups. “The process of reform must continue,” she said.
Suu Kyi will go to Capitol Hill to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, which she was awarded in absentia in 2008, when she was still under house arrest, and she is expected to visit the White House. She is also scheduled to visit New York, the Midwest and California in a trip aimed at making contacts that were impossible during her long captivity.
Her itinerary has been arranged to avoid upstaging Myanmar President Thein Sein, who will meet with Clinton after he arrives in New York next week for the annual United Nations General Assembly. Thein Sein has overseen the country’s liberalization, but democracy advocates remain uncertain how far he will go.
-- Paul Richter
Photo: Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton welcomes Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington. Credit: Olivier Douliery / MCT