Democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi was set to receive the US Congress’ highest honor yesterday during a landmark trip in which she has called for the lifting of sanctions on her native Myanmar.
The Nobel peace laureate was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2008, during the 15 years she spent under house arrest, and is only able to receive it now as relations thaw between the US and the south east Asian nation.
On Tuesday Aung San Suu Kyi thanked the US for its years of support, but said further reforms must proceed without the pressure of sanctions and insisted improved relations with Washington would not pose a threat to Beijing.
“In the end, we have to build our own democracy,” she said in a speech in which she appeared careful not to annoy leaders back home who have initiated reforms.
The opposition leader had long supported economic sanctions to pressure her jailers, Myanmar’s junta, which nominally disbanded last year.
The US has been rolling back restrictions, in July opening Myanmar up to US investment despite Aung San Suu Kyi’s earlier unease about US firms doing business with the state-owned oil and gas company.
“There are very many other ways in which the US can help us to achieve our democratic ends ... Sanctions are not the only way,” she said.
Aung San Suu Kyi, now a member of parliament, said she believes Burmese President Thein Sein is “keen” on change in the nation formerly known as Burma, but said the judiciary — and not the executive — was reform’s “weakest arm.”
“We have passed a first hurdle, but there are many more hurdles to cross,” she said.
On the eve of Aung San Suu Kyi’s trip, her party said that authorities freed another 87 political prisoners in what analysts saw as a new gesture by Thein Sein ahead of his own visit to the US next week.
In the award ceremony before the Asia Society and US Institute of Peace, Aung San Suu Kyi took pains to reassure China, which was the junta’s main ally.
Many US observers believe Thein Sein launched the reforms out of concern over Beijing’s overwhelming political and economic dominance in Myanmar.
While acknowledging it was a “natural question” whether US interest in Myanmar was spawned by a desire to contain China, Aung San Suu Kyi said the warming ties should not “in any way be seen as a hostile step toward China.”
“For us to put it very simply, it would be to our advantage for the US and China to establish friendly relations. This would help us a great deal,” she said.
Aung San Suu Kyi, dressed in a red jacket, began her visit by meeting another of the world’s most prominent women, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who marveled at her political odyssey.
“It’s wonderful to see Aung San Suu Kyi back in Washington as a free and forceful leader of a country opening up to the world in ways that would have been difficult to imagine even recently,” Clinton said.