Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi cautioned today that her country’s reform process had cleared only the “first hurdle” and said she endorsed an easing of U.S. sanctions.
“We have crossed the first hurdle but there are many more hurdles to cross,” she said.
But Suu Kyi struck a more optimistic note at the Washington headquarters of Radio Free Asia (above) today.
“This is, in many ways, as I have been saying, the last mile,” she said. “This is the time we need all the help possible to make sure that our country keeps on the right path. This is another way of saying RFA is needed more than ever for us in Burma and for other people in other places, which are not yet free.”
RFA had served as a critical information lifeline during the military junta’s authoritarian rule and the country’s current era of transition and reform.
Her comments followed talks with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who praised President Thein Sein’s reforms but warned against the possibility of “backsliding,” expressed concern about ethnic sectarianism and reported ties to North Korea.
“The government and opposition need to continue to work together to unite the country, heal the wounds of the past and carry the reforms forward,” Clinton said, introducing Suu Kyi at a joint event of the US Institute of Peace and Asia Society.
But they should also “guard against backsliding,” she said. “There are forces that would take the country in the wrong direction if given the chance.”
The normalization of U.S.-Burma ties was “particularly illustrative of the dimensions of geopolitics and history,” the Nobel laureate said:
Many people around the region are asking, she said, whether U.S. engagement with Myanmar “was aimed at containing the influence of China in Asia.” Myanmar’s engagement with the United States did not imply any deterioration in its relationship with China or mean that Myanmar-U.S. ties “in any way can be seen as a hostile threat to China.”
As Suu Kyi arrived in the U.S., Burmese authorities announced a pardon of 514 prisoners in a general amnesty that included political detainees.
But only 86 of those released are political prisoners, said the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Burma.
The U.S. State Department called for the immediate and unconditional release of all political detainees, as Clinton highlighted the issue as evidence that the government still “had a lot of work to do.”
“Political prisoners remain in detention. Ongoing ethnic and sectarian violence continues to undermine progress toward national reconciliation, stability and lasting peace,” said Clinton.
In the latest sign of progress, Democratic Voice of Burma reports that influential Shan leader and former political prisoner Khun Htun Oo will serve in Burma’s delegation to next week’s UN’s General Assembly.
Suu Kyi will deliver a keynote speech in Washington on Thursday at an event organized by the National Endowment for Democracy to recognize five Burmese activists who have made significant contributions to the country’s democratic movement.
But Min Ko Naing (left), who was released from a 65-year jail sentence earlier this year, has pulled out of the event in solidarity with other activists who were denied passports to travel.
“I really value the award given by the National Endowment for Democracy but I have decided not to travel to Washington to accept it,” Mr Naing said. “On principle, I will not travel alone when my colleagues are denied their citizens’ rights. We should be treated as equals and be given passports together.”
Civil society activists should use the run-up to elections in 2015 to build support for reform and institutionalize the process, according to a report by senior Asia specialists at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). “It is critical that the opposition works now to build confidence within the military so it will have enough trust to allow amendments to address the limits on democracy in the constitution and not panic if the opposition wins the majority in Parliament,” said the group who visited the country in August.
While Suu Kyi supported the easing of sanctions, the U.S. Campaign for Burma said Washington should retain them for leverage, especially with respect to the military conflicts with ethnic minority groups.
“The fragility of the peace talks with various ethnic groups and the situation in western Burma remain serious issues that need more substantial progress before we believe any additional U.S. sanctions are lifted,” said Jennifer Quigley, the group’s advocacy director.
The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Burma and Democratic Voice of Burma are grantees of the National Endowment for Democracy.