Nobel activist to warn U.S. of too much faith in Myanmar

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One of Asia’s most prominent democracy advocates will warn the Obama administration and members of Congress on a visit to Washington this week against “reckless optimism” over the chance for real political reform in her native Myanmar.

Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and former political prisoner in the nation formerly known as Burma, arrived in Washington Monday on her first visit to the United States in more than two decades.

Her packed schedule includes meetings with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, members of Congress and university students. President Obama is expected to take time off from his re-election campaign to meet Mrs. Suu Kyi. The White House, however, did not confirm a meeting. She will receive Congress‘ highest honor, the Congressional Gold Medal, on Wednesday.

The visit takes place amid a thaw in Myanmar’s relationship with the West. The Southeast Asian nation’s military-backed government has released hundreds of political prisoners, including Mrs. Suu Kyi; allowed her to participate in elections; and struck peace deals with ethnic rebel groups.

Mrs. Suu Kyi’s cousin Sein Win — who led Myanmar's government-in-exile until it was dissolved last week to promote national reconciliation — said she will warn her U.S. interlocutors about “reckless optimism” over developments in Myanmar, where the government’s commitment to democratic reform is far from certain.

“There are many changes, but there need to be many more changes, and that is not happening now,” Sein Win said.

The commitment of Myanmar's government to democratic reform and the plight of ethnic minorities will top the agenda of Mrs. Suu Kyi’s meetings in Washington.

The Obama administration is also worried about the plight of Rohingyas, stateless Muslims who have been raped, arrested and killed by Myanmar’s security forces following deadly clashes with majority Buddhists in the western part of the country in June. Human rights activists say Mrs. Suu Kyi has not spoken out strongly enough on this issue.

The Obama administration in July sent diplomat Derek Mitchell to Myanmar as the first U.S. ambassador in two decades. The White House has mostly waived financial restrictions, paving the way for U.S. businesses to invest in Myanmar. Washington is considering easing a ban on imports from Myanmar.

In August, Congress approved legislation to extend some sanctions on Myanmar by another year but gave the administration the authority to waive the import sanctions if it determined that the government had taken steps to earn it.

Despite those breakthroughs, the Obama administration remains concerned about the protection of human rights, government corruption, and the role of the military in Myanmar’s economy.

In Myanmar, the opposition wants to amend the constitution, which guarantees the military a quarter of the seats in the lower house of parliament and one-third in the upper house.

“When you look at the present constitution, how can you say we have democracy or we are going toward democracy?” Seine Win asked. “Our struggle is not over.”

Myanmar’s efforts to normalize ties with the West have been dogged by an ongoing civil war with ethnic rebels in the northernmost Kachin state.

The government of President Thein Sein, a retired general, announced Monday that it had released 514 prisoners, some of them political prisoners.

Jennifer Quigley, advocacy director at the U.S. Campaign for Burma, was unimpressed by the amnesty.

“One of the easiest things to do is to release political prisoners because that is also one of the easiest things to undo,” she said.

Rep. Joseph Crowley, New York Democrat and co-sponsor of a bill to award Mrs. Suu Kyi the Gold Medal, said, “We need to see the release of all remaining political prisoners, and we need to see the permanent end of violence against ethnic minorities like the Kachin and the Shan.”

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

About the Author
Ashish Kumar Sen

Ashish Kumar Sen

Ashish Kumar Sen is a reporter covering foreign policy and international developments for The Washington Times.

Prior to joining The Times, Mr. Sen worked for publications in Asia and the Middle East. His work has appeared in a number of publications and online news sites including the British Broadcasting Corp., Asia Times Online and Outlook magazine.

 

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