In her first visit to the United States in 40 years, Burmese political leader and Nobel Prize recipient, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, spoke alongside U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton about Burma’s political efforts to transition from a military dictatorship to a Democracy. At the United States Institute of Peace on Tuesday, San Suu Kyi, the leader of Burma’s opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), who also spent nearly two decades under house arrest for her vocal opposition to Burma’s military leadership, lauded American diplomatic cooperation with Burma, and the Obama administration’s efforts to open up relations with the long isolated country.
Calling San Suu Kyi’s visit “an extraordinary auspicious occasion,” Clinton praised Burma’s recent efforts to advance human rights. Clinton highlighted the Burmese government’s recent efforts that resulted in the release of hundreds of political prisoners, and allowed laborers to unionize and democratic elections to take place.Clinton welcomed San Suu Kyi as a person “who has represented struggle for freedom and democracy, for human rights, and opportunity, not only in her own country, but seen as such around the world.”
In 1962, Burma’s military overthrew the royal family and changed the country’s name to Myanmar. Due to the brutality of the regime, the U.S. does not refer to Burma as Myanmar in an effort to avoid recognizing the legitimacy of the repressive regime. San Suu Kyi founded the NLD in 1988. When Burma held elections in 1990, the NLD won, but the Burmerse government refused to recognize its victory and placed San Suu Kyi under house arrest. In 1991 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to bring democracy to Burma. In 2010 her house arrest was lifted and she successfully won a parliament seat in the 2011 elections.
Despite recent diplomatic engagements between the U.S. and Burma for the first time since the military coup fifty years ago, Clinton cautioned that the government and San Suu Kyi’s opposition party must take necessary steps to “guard against backsliding because there are forces that would take the country in the wrong direction if given the chance.” Clinton also noted that despite recent reforms, many political activists remain imprisoned and ethic violence continues.
The Secretary also drew a comparison between her own personal entrance into national politics to that of San Suu Kyi’s transition from political symbol to politician. “I know a little bit about how hard that transition can be,” Clinton said. “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 held faith with you while you were on the outside.”
Speaking about Burma’s political climate, San Suu Kyi explained that the movement towards a democratic Burma required the Burmese to “look to our friends.” She also discussed the complexity of Burmese relations with China and the impact it would have on U.S.-Burmese relations. San Suu Kyi explained that “there were many questions asked if the United States’ engagement with Burma was aimed at containing the influence of China in Asia.” She stated that the relationship between the three nations is complex, but also unavoidable, and said that Burma’s emergence onto the world stage is an opportunity to use its “new situation to strengthen [its] relationship with all three nations.”
Clinton visited Burma in 2011, the first time the U.S. has sent a Secretary of State to Burma since 1955. The U.S. also appointed its first ever ambassador to Burma, Derek Mitchell, last October.