WASHINGTON (AP) — After years of decrying oppression against Myanmar’s democracy leader, the United States got to celebrate her freedom as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton welcomed Aung San Suu Kyi to the State Department on Tuesday at the start of her landmark tour of America.
Nine months after they met at the Nobel laureate’s crumbling lakeside villa in Yangon, Mrs. Suu Kyi and Mrs. Clinton were expected to discuss the political changes in the country also known as Burma and whether Washington should ease its remaining economic sanctions in response to the reforms.
In brief comments open to reporters at the start of their meeting, Mrs. Clinton and Mrs. Suu Kyi discussed the Burmese expatriate community in Indiana that she will visit during her 17-day stay.
“There’s so much excitement and enthusiasm that you can actually come,” Mrs. Clinton said.
Hours before Mrs. Suu Kyi touched down in Washington, Myanmar announced on Monday a new round of prisoner releases. According to Mrs. Suu Kyi’s party, at least 87 political detainees were freed, but activists say they are disappointed that hundreds more remain behind bars.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Monday the U.S. has yet to identify those freed and declined to comment on whether the U.S. soon could waive its import ban.
Since Mrs. Suu Kyi herself was freed from house arrest in late 2010, she has transitioned from dissident to parliamentarian. Now confident of her position in Myanmar and free to travel abroad without being barred from returning, Mrs. Suu Kyi in the past four months also has visited Thailand and Europe, where she was accorded honors usually reserved for heads of state.
She’s also assured of star treatment in the U.S., where she’s revered by Democrats and Republicans alike. The ceremonial highlight of Mrs. Suu Kyi’s U.S. visit will come Wednesday, when she is presented Congress’ highest award, which she was granted in absentia in 2008 when she was still under house arrest. She is also likely to be welcomed to the White House.
That’s a powerful sign of how a former pariah state has shifted from five decades of repressive military rule, gaining international acceptance. The Obama administration has been at the forefront of the re-engagement that gathered steam when Mrs. Clinton visited Myanmar in December. In July, the administration allowed U.S. companies to start investing there again.
“For her to come here and collect the Congressional Gold Medal and celebrate with the activists who have stood by her for so many years is momentous,” said Suzanne Nossel, executive director of Amnesty International USA, which will host Mrs. Suu Kyi on Thursday. The rights group hopes Mrs. Suu Kyi’s visit will help energize a new generation of activists.
But the administration is being careful to balance its plaudits for Mrs. Suu Kyi with praise and recognition for the former general who has made the reforms possible — President Thein Sein. He arrives in the U.S. next week to attend the U.N. General Assembly’s annual gathering of world leaders in New York. Any announcement on easing the import ban is likely to take place at that time.
In a sign of that diplomatic balancing act, a key aide to Thein Sein, Aung Min, who as minister of the president’s office has been at the forefront of cease-fire negotiations with Myanmar’s ethnic insurgents, will have high-level meetings at the State Department on Wednesday. He also will attend Mrs. Suu Kyi’s Congressional Gold Medal ceremony at the Capitol.
Mrs. Suu Kyi is under political pressure from Thein Sein’s government to press the U.S. to remove the remaining sanctions — and it’s a step that she appears willing to consider, although many of her longtime supporters in exile oppose it, saying reforms have yet to take root and Myanmar should not be rewarded at a time when ethnic violence is escalating in some parts of the country.
Fighting in northern Kachin state between the military and ethnic rebels continues and has displaced tens of thousands people. Communal violence in western Rakhine state in June left scores dead, and Mrs. Suu Kyi herself has faced some criticism for not speaking out in support of the region’s downtrodden Rohingya Muslims, who are denied citizenship.
Despite her global standing and April election to parliament, Mrs. Suu Kyi still has little clout in the military-dominated legislature, and rights activists fear that it is military cronies who will benefit most as Myanmar opens up to foreign investors.