After some 40 years away, Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is back in the United States. Suu Kyi addressed an audience at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C., today in an event cosponsored by that organization and the Asia Society. In a lengthy and far-ranging speech, Suu Kyi touched on several subjects, from the geopolitics of the region to the history of the U.S. relationship with Burma, to the need for rule of law and the importance of strengthening all three branches of Burma’s government, especially the judiciary.
Her remarks were preceded by a brief address by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who said, “It’s wonderful to see 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 highlighted some of Burma’s progress: “Hundreds of prisoners of conscience have been released over the past year, including some just this week. Opposition political parties have been legalized, and their members have won seats in Parliament. Restrictions on the press and on freedom of assembly have eased.” And yet Clinton, who met with Suu Kyi earlier today, also pointed out the work that needs to be done. “I think one of the important reasons for her visit at this time is to remind us of how much more still lies ahead,” adding that “there are forces that would take the country in the wrong direction if given the chance.”
Suu Kyi took the stage to a standing ovation. “I would like to say how happy I am to be with you today,” she said, “to be with the people of the United States who have stood by us through our hard years of struggle for democracy. We are not yet at the end of our struggle. But we are getting there. We have crossed the first hurdle, but there are many more hurdles to cross.”
Suu Kyi’s historic visit to the U.S. comes about 18 months after Burma’s president, Thein Sein, took office promising reforms. It’s been a historic two years for Burma: Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in 2010, and in April of this year, she won a seat in the country’s parliament, and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), now controls just over 40 seats out of the 651 seats in Burma’s parliament.
“I think the news [from Burma] is very good,” Priscilla Clapp, a former State Department diplomat who was the chief of mission in the country from 1999 to 2002, told The Daily Beast before Suu Kyi’s arrival in the U.S. “I have been involved with this for 15 years now. It was my dream to see this happening. I know there are a lot of pitfalls, there are a lot of things that could go wrong. But I did not expect the same generals—that I knew before—to take a 180-degree turn and suddenly embrace basically the ideals of democracy that we have been looking for all this time. I think they’re headed in the right direction. There are many obstacles, there are many people there that aren’t happy with this direction. But right now it’s going in the right direction, and I believe that it’s incumbent on the U.S. to support it strongly.” Those obstacles include poverty and terrible infrastructure, which may hinder the efforts of those eager to invest in the country.
Suu Kyi spoke of how the U.S. relationship with Burma could affect its relations with China, mentioning that some people would see America's new, stronger relationship with Burma as a part of “containing the influence of China in Asia” and added that “we can use our new situation to strengthen relations between all three countries.” She spoke about the history of the U.S.’s relationship with her country, noting that it began with education and missionary work. But in the years of military dictatorship, she said, “because of the xenophobia [of the ruling junta] we lost many of our links with the West.” The turning point was two years ago, “when the military regime was replaced by a civilian regime, elected in 2010. I will be quite frank in saying we have grave doubts about the way in which those elections were conducted.”
At one point, Suu Kyi took a moment to address a question that those who follow Burma may wonder about: is it proper to refer to the country as Burma, or Myanmar? “It’s entirely a matter of choice,” she said, adding that she prefers to call it Burma.
Suu Kyi described a variety of problems that still plague her country: the need to improve the health-care system, education (“hardly 20 percent of kids make it through high school,” she noted), rule of law and its importance in insuring human rights, and the release of political prisoners— by her count there are still around 200 political prisoners behind bars. “All these will have to be freed,” she said.
She also touched briefly on the controversial issue of ethnic tension in Burma. “The government has formed a commission to look into the situation in the Rakhine. The NLD is a political party, seen as the major opposition party. We do not want to make political capital out of the situation in the Rakhine state. We want to give the government all the opportunities it needs to diffuse the situation there, and to bring about a peaceful settlement.”
“If we are to resolve the problems that now face our country,” she said toward the end of her speech, “we will have to learn the art of negotiated compromise and we hope very much that the U.S. and other friends will help up in this learning process. In the end, U.S.-Burma relations will be what we make of it.”
John Sifton, the Asia Advocacy Director for Human Right Watch, wishes Aung San Suu Kyi had been more specific. In terms of democracy and human rights, “the speech was very vague, sort of devoid on specific challenges that are being faced,” he told The Daily Beast afterward. “What you see is, Suu Kyi is no longer a human-rights activist. She is now a politician. You can be a human-rights activist and speak frankly about human-rights issues in your country, or you can be a politician, but you can’t be both.” He notes that the “elephant in the room is the elections in 2015,” which he wishes she’d been more clear about. “The military’s not just going to give up power. They’re going to want something in return, or they’re not going to give up the power, in which case there’ll be a crisis.” He also wishes she had addressed issues of racism underlying tension in Rakhine state (which is also known as Arakan state).
Suu Kyi closed by striking a note of optimism tinged with realism and humor. “I’m sure that we will succeed in our endeavor,” she said. “Not easily. There are many many obstacles in the way, and I’m not going to talk about those, because I think when the question-and-answer session comes everybody is going to talk about these obstacles”—a statement that brought laughter to the audience.
“I would like to thank all of your for what you have done for my country in the past,” she said in conclusion, “and I look forward to the future when we will be able to do much for one another.”