Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi said she was open to a U.S. relaxation of economic sanctions on her country, even as she urged American leaders to focus on more than its economy alone.
“I do support the easing of sanctions because I think that our people must start taking responsibility for their own destiny,” Suu Kyi said at an event at the U.S. Institute of Peace, a nonpartisan policy group in Washington funded by Congress. “I do not think we should depend on the U.S. sanctions to keep up the momentum of our movement toward democracy. We’ve got to work at it ourselves.”
The political dissident and democracy activist said she is in the U.S. for the first time in about 40 years, a visit that would have been unthinkable as little as two years ago when she remained under house arrest. She is now a member of parliament. She met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the State Department yesterday and will see lawmakers, activists and officials while in Washington.
Suu Kyi asked U.S. leaders not to focus on Myanmar’s economy to the exclusion of other issues, such as the rule of law and democratic progress. In July, State Department officials led the highest-level economic and commercial delegation to Myanmar, also known as Burma, in more than 25 years. They also took part in a business delegation that included more than 70 executives from 35 companies.
“While the United States seems to be concentrating a lot on the economic aspect of its relations with my country,” Suu Kyi said, “I hope they will do this in full awareness of the need to promote rule of law and to help the president and his executive to carry out the reforms they have in mind.”
Rule of Law
She cautioned that unless there is the rule of law and a functioning judicial system to enforce it, companies coming to Myanmar won’t have “either security or the freedom necessary for them to operate effectively in our country.”
Suzanne Nossel, Amnesty International USA’s executive director, said while what is happening is “not a complete turnaround or the dawn of democracy and human rights in Burma, it’s a very important beginning.”
Issues such as child labor, forced labor, political prisoners and ethnic conflict must be dealt with, she said in a telephone interview.
Clinton said that in addition to appointing an ambassador and lifting sanctions on Myanmar, the U.S. had let companies invest in the country and was ensuring that happened in a way “that advances rather than undermines continued reforms.”
Nossel said that “what’s crucial is that the companies that enter Burma take seriously their human-rights obligations that are spelled out in international law and end up being a force for good.”
She said that is important “because there’s a very real risk if they put profits ahead of people they’ll end up exacerbating a very precarious climate in terms of rights, rather than helping to accelerate the progress.”
Clinton didn’t discuss the prospect of a further easing of sanctions. State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland told reporters yesterday that she wasn’t “in a position to predict whether we’re going to take any new steps on Burma this week or next.” She said the U.S. expects the country’s president, Thein Sein, to visit New York next week for the United Nations General Assembly.
Both Suu Kyi and Clinton warned against complacency about Myanmar’s move toward democracy, even with positive signs such as the release of political prisoners Sept. 17. Suu Kyi said yesterday that of the approximately 500 people released, about 200 were political prisoners.
There is a need to “guard against backsliding, because there are forces that would take the country in the wrong direction if given the chance,” Clinton said as she introduced Suu Kyi to the crowd at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
Clinton touched on other signs of progress, including fragile ceasefires in some long-running internal conflicts, the creation of an opposition and an easing of restrictions on the media. She also underscored the need for more work.
She mentioned the need to release more political prisoners, reduce ethnic violence that undermines internal stability, amend the constitution, increase transparency, strengthen the rule of law and curtail contacts with North Korea.
“The State Department and the Obama administration are certainly the first to say the process of political reform must continue,” Clinton said. Using the country’s name at independence, which is official administration policy, Clinton said “the United States is committed to standing with the people of Burma to support this progress that has begun, but that is still a work in progress.”
Today, Suu Kyi will meet lawmakers at the Capitol and receive the Congressional Gold Medal, the legislative body’s highest award.