WASHINGTON – Myanmar’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi used her first public address in the United States to support the lifting of the last remaining US economic sanctions on her country, but also warned that all remaining political prisoners need to be released.
“If you talk about genuine democratization, there should be not a single political prisoner,” she said in Washington on Tuesday.
Her visit comes just a day after the quasi-civilian government in Myanmar (also known as Burma) released another 500 prisoners, among whom Suu Kyi said that nearly 90 were political prisoners. According to her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), more than 200 political prisoners remain in Myanmar. Some groups, including the US government, say the figure could be twice that number.
Before the Myanmar government, long synonymous with the military, started a series of contested reforms two years ago, the number of political prisoners in the country was estimated at higher than 2,100.
The issue gets at the heart of the talks that will take place in the coming days between Suu Kyi and members of the US government, which has been one of the most powerful voices for engagement as the Myanmar government has engaged in a contested reforms process over the past two years.
In the eyes of many activists, sanctions offer the last significant tool with which the United States can continue to goad the Myanmar government towards opening up. But US government officials have said that the sanctions can be put back on anytime, should backsliding begin.
While Suu Kyi has publicly wavered on the issue in recent months, on Tuesday she set out her views on sanctions clearly.
“I don’t think we need to cling on to sanctions unnecessarily, because I want the Burmese people to be responsible for their own destiny, and not to depend too much on external help,” she said, following meetings with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“We will need external help … but in the end we have to build our own democracy. And we would like US-Burma relations to be founded firmly on the recognition of the need for our own people to be accountable for their own destiny.”
Suu Kyi, now an elected member of Myanmar’s new parliament while continuing to lead the NLD, the country’s main opposition party, is at the beginning of a 17-day visit to the United States. The trip is her first to the US since a stint working with the United Nations in New York during the 1970s, and her third international excursion since being released in lat 2010 from nearly two decades under house arrest.
Having gained some official assurance that she would indeed be let back into Myanmar, Suu Kyi has already visited Thailand and Europe. The pomp with which she was welcomed during those first two trips reportedly strained relations with the government, particularly with President Thein Sein, the quasi-reformist with whom Suu Kyi’s relationship is seen as particularly important.
This time around, although she is again being met at the highest levels of government – on Wednesday she will receive a Congressional Gold Medal, while a visit with President Barack Obama may also take place – Suu Kyi is travelling with a top aide of President Thein Sein.
In her introductory remarks, Clinton noted the need to find that balance, and discussed “the challenge of moving from protest to politics, from symbol to stateswoman”. She said that she, too, has had such an experience.
“It exposes you to a whole new sort of criticism and even attack, and requires the kind of pragmatic compromise and coalition building that is the lifeblood of politics but may disappoint the purists who have held faith with you while you were on the outside.”
Suu Kyi suggested that her entire country is attempting to figure out this same balance, from the top of government on down.
“I am now a member of the new legislature … we are beginning to learn to work together, beginning to learn the art of compromise, give and take, the achievement of consensus,” she said. “This is beginning in the legislature, and we hope that it will spread out to the rest of the political culture of Burma. Because Burma’s political culture has been very weak in negotiated compromise – it is not the way we have worked for a good many years.”
Part of that compromise seems to be Suu Kyi’s willingness to countenance a final rollback of the economic sanctions that Washington imposed two decades ago. Since it took over in early 2011, the new government in Myanmar has pushed strenuously to have the sanctions removed.
While the United States has scaled back certain parts of the measures twice already this year, and while several other countries – most notably those that make up the European Union – have already done away with similar punitive measures completely, Washington continues to maintain an import ban that the Myanmar government is keen to get around.
In the lead-up to Suu Kyi’s US visit, several analysts suggested that the Myanmar government was pushing her to request the US to do away with the import ban. While Clinton made no reference to the issue on Tuesday, a Suu Kyi endorsement could push Washington to make an announcement on the issue during a visit next week by President Thein Sein, to attend the UN General Assembly.
Still, both Clinton and Suu Kyi were quick to emphasize the difficulties that remain ahead, both in consolidating Myanmar’s nascent reforms process and in forging a new bilateral relationship with the United States. On this latter issue, Suu Kyi made a few pointed remarks in offering a framework for cooperation.
“While the United States seems to be concentrating a lot on the economic aspect of its relations with my country, I hope they will do this in full awareness of the need to promote rule of law,” she said.
She called on the US to help President Thein Sein carry out current and future reforms, but also repeatedly stressed the need to strengthen the other two branches of government – the legislature and, especially, the judiciary.
“If you looked at our judiciary, you’d probably see nothing because this is our weakest arm,” she said. “New US-Burma bilateral relations need to be founded firmly in the need to give equal weight to the executive, the legislature and the judiciary, and to judge the progress of democratization in Burma by looking at each of these institutions and how well they’re able to work together to establish democratic practices.”
While the reforms of the past year and a half move ahead, she also warned that the process could not simply continue indefinitely at the sole whim of the military and the government’s top leadership.
“We need a timeframe when we’re talking of political settlement,” she said. “We cannot keep going on benchmarks – we have to know when we want to get to where at what time.”