September 19, 2012
WASHINGTON — Myanmar’s opposition leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, called for the lifting of American sanctions against her country on Tuesday, beginning an emotional visit to the United States that punctuated the remarkable shift in relations with Myanmar over the past year.
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, who until recently remained wary of removing the sanctions that have long isolated her country, said they had served their purpose politically, and she urged the United States to engage broadly with the country’s leaders to help build a new democracy.
“I do not think we should depend on U.S. sanctions to keep up the momentum of our new democracy,” she said at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington. “We have got to work at it ourselves. There are very many other ways in which the United States can help us to achieve our democratic ends.”
For Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, who is widely revered here for her struggle against Myanmar’s military leaders, the visit amounted to a political homecoming to a country she had not visited since she worked at the United Nations from 1969 to 1971.
The mere fact of the visit would have been virtually unimaginable even a year ago, when the administration first began to test a political opening after U Thein Sein, a former general, became president and began taking steps to move the country away from its authoritarian past.
“We are not yet at the end of our struggle,” she said after being warmly applauded by current and former officials when she arrived at the institute, accompanied by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, “but we are getting there.”
The Obama administration has already significantly eased sanctions against Myanmar, also known as Burma, allowing American companies to invest in many areas of the economy. But it has left other sanctions in place — with even suspended sanctions remaining on the books — to guard against what Mrs. Clinton described on Tuesday as the risk of “backsliding” by hard-liners.
“There are forces that would take the country in the wrong direction if given the chance,” said Mrs. Clinton, who met with Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi at the State Department on Tuesday morning. Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi did not specify which sanctions she wanted lifted. One of the most punitive restrictions left in place is a ban of virtually all Burmese imports to the United States.
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi is scheduled to have a series of public and private meetings with administration officials, lawmakers and democracy advocates. The White House has not announced whether she will meet with President Obama.
She will receive Congress’s highest honor, the Congressional Gold Medal, in the Capitol’s Rotunda on Wednesday, four years after she was awarded it in absentia while under house arrest.
Mrs. Clinton and Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi first met last December at the lakeside villa in Yangon where the democracy advocate spent 15 years under house arrest. They have since remained in regular contact as the United States has returned an ambassador to the country and taken other steps to restart something close to normal relations.
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, who was released from house arrest in November 2010 and earlier this year was elected to Parliament, appears to have closely coordinated her trip with Myanmar’s new government, in contrast with a recent trip to Thailand that seemed to cause some strain in the relationship with Mr. Thein Sein, the president. She invited a government minister who is close to him, U Aung Min, to accompany her on Wednesday to the ceremony in Congress.
Mr. Thein Sein, who has surprised many by his willingness to ease restrictions on political parties, the news media and businesses, has made lifting sanctions one of his highest priorities, and Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s remarks on Tuesday here underscored the extent of their collaboration. Both are scheduled to be in New York next week during the annual opening of the United Nations General Assembly.
While they are not exactly allies, their relationship is considered crucial to stabilizing Myanmar as it makes the transition from military dictatorship to a more open, if not yet democratic, system.
“Both sides are reaching out to each other,” said U Tin Maung Thann, the president of Myanmar Egress, an organization that works with the president’s office. He noted that Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi had invited Mr. Aung to the Capitol Hill ceremony and that they consulted with each other on the color of their outfits.
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi arrived in Washington the day after Mr. Thein Sein’s government announced the release of 514 prisoners, the latest in a series of amnesties that have included some, but not all, political prisoners.
The release of some political prisoners in a larger amnesty was in keeping with what American officials have said was a strategy by Myanmar’s government to avoid a blanket release that could anger the country’s hard-liners. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Burma, an advocacy group, said it considered only 86 of those freed in the latest round to be political prisoners.
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi said that in a democracy there should be not a single prisoner of conscience, but she also showed her openness to compromise. For example, although the military government changed the country’s name to Myanmar, democracy advocates and the United States continue to refer to it by its old name, Burma. She said she now accepted both and sometimes used “Burma” because she was accustomed to it.
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi also described the work of her bloc in Myanmar’s Parliament. She and 42 other members of her party initially refused to take an oath of office to protect a constitution they do not consider fully democratic, but she explained at length why she ultimately relented.
“We are beginning to learn the art of compromise, give and take, the achievement of consensus,” she said. “It is good that this is beginning in the legislature, and we hope that this will spread out and become part of the political culture of Burma.”
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