USIP and the Asia Society hosted an engaging discussion with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on the democratic transition in Burma/Myanmar, the challenges that lay ahead, and the potential of a promising future.

Burma/Myanmar Democracy Activist Daw Aung San Suu Kyi Calls for U.S. Support, Easing of Sanctions at USIP

Longtime democracy champion Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, appearing at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) on September 18 at the beginning of a 17-day visit to the United States, called for continuing U.S. support on behalf of the Southeast Asian nation’s transition to democracy and for a further easing of the U.S. economic sanctions that remain in place following decades of military dictatorship. 

“I do not think that we need to cling on to sanctions unnecessarily, because I want our people to be responsible for their own destiny and not to depend too much on external props,” she told an audience in USIP’s Carlucci Auditorium and watching on the web. Burma, also known as Myanmar, will need external support from its friends, she said, but “in the end, we have to build our own democracy for ourselves.”

Suu Kyi, who is now a member of Burma’s parliament and chair of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), thanked Americans, “who have stood by us through our hard years of struggle for democracy,” and sketched out the challenges remaining to “rebuild our nation in a democratic mold.” She cited as reform priorities establishing the rule of law across Burma’s executive, legislative and judicial branches; ending the country’s ethnic conflicts with a commitment to mutual respect and human rights; and instituting amendments to Burma’s constitution. 

The event was jointly sponsored by USIP and the Asia Society, the lead partner in USIP’s initial efforts to assist Burma in its political transition. The Institute is working with the Asia Society and the Blue Moon Fund to share information and experiences on issues identified by Burmese related to the rule of law, religion and peacemaking, democratic governance, conflict resolution and the capacity of Burma’s media to promote conflict-sensitive approaches. 

Suu Kyi was welcomed by USIP’s new president, Jim Marshall, and by Henrietta Fore, the Asia Society’s co-chair. She also accepted the 2011 Global Vision Award from the Asia Society after her address at USIP.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who met with Suu Kyi at the State Department earlier in the day, called the event “an extraordinary, auspicious occasion” and introduced Suu Kyi as “someone who has represented the struggle for freedom and democracy, for human rights and opportunity, not only in her own country but seen as such around the world.” Suu Kyi spent most of the past two decades—until late 2010—under house arrest as the leader of Burma’s leading democratic opposition party. “Suu Kyi’s courage and moral leadership never wavered,” Clinton said. 

The secretary of state noted that Burma’s government under President Thein Sein has released hundreds of prisoners of conscience (including some this week), legalized opposition parties, reduced restrictions on the press and on freedom of assembly, expanded workers’ rights and negotiated ceasefires in some of the country’s ethnic conflicts. The United States has already begun easing sanctions and allowed American companies to invest in Burma. However, she also noted that political prisoners remain, ethnic violence continues and “some military contacts with North Korea persist.” The reforms are “still a work in progress,” she cautioned, while describing ongoing consultations with the Burmese government and others allowing the United States to “provide the help and support that is necessary and appropriate.”

Suu Kyi acknowledged the difficulties that remain. “We are not yet at the end of our struggle but we are getting there,” she said.

A Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Suu Kyi reviewed decades of Burmese-U.S. relations that eroded dramatically after Burma’s military established dictatorial rule in 1962. Her NLD was allowed to vie for seats in parliamentary by-elections in April, and the party won 43 of the 45 seats that were up for election. She credited Thein with prompting the country’s political changes: “I believe that he is keen on democratic reforms, but how the executive goes about implementing these reforms is what we have to watch” she said. Burma and the United States need to continue working “to establish a strong, healthy relationship,” she said, adding, “Now, it is time for you to be friends with our whole country…to be able to help us realize our aspirations.”

Suu Kyi made reference to the dissatisfaction some opposition activists felt with her decision to lead the NLD into parliament and ty to work within the existing political system. “We’re finding our way,” she said. “We are beginning to learn the art of compromise, give and take, the achievement of consensus.”

She focused particular attention on Burma’s need to establish the rule of law and to peacefully address the ethnic conflicts that have seized parts of the country for years. “Without rule of law, you cannot have the kind of economic reforms that will lift our people out of poverty,” she said. On the longstanding communal tensions in such areas as the states of Rakhine and Kachin, Suu Kyi said the opposition did not seek to capitalize politically but urged that respect for human rights and rule of law were essential to “build up ethnic harmony in our country.”

USIP this year has hosted Track II-style dialogue sessions on Burma’s political transition out of authoritarianism with representatives of the Myanmar Development Resources Institute (MDRI), senior advisers to Burmese President Thein and U.S. experts. Institute specialists in the areas of rule of law, inter-religious coexistence and media development have also met in Burma with Burmese in and out of government to assess where USIP might provide democratic transition assistance, and its Academy for International Conflict Management and Peacebuilding has started training Burmese specialists participating in courses on governance, building institutional capacity, economic reconstruction and addressing societal trauma from conflicts.

Suu Kyi’s trip will include meetings with other U.S. officials and lawmakers, journalists, university audiences and Burmese American communities. In addition to Washington, D.C., she is scheduled to visit New York, Kentucky, Indiana and California. On September 19 at the U.S. Capitol, she will receive the Congressional Gold Medal. It was awarded to her in absentia in 2008. 

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