, WASHINGTON, Sept 18 – Democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, who was confined for years under house arrest, takes a new step Tuesday as she meets top leaders in Washington who are seeking to encourage the reforms in Myanmar.
The Nobel peace laureate, who arrived Monday at the start of an 18-day US tour that would have long been unthinkable, will hold talks with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who paid her own landmark visit to Myanmar in December.
The meeting comes one day after the country formerly known as Burma freed more political prisoners, offering a potential new sign of progress ahead of a separate visit next week to New York by President Thein Sein.
Suu Kyi spent 15 years confined to her lakeside Yangon home after her party swept 1990 elections and military rulers ignored the result. Suu Kyi was freed in 2010 and, in a powerful sign of change, won a seat in parliament.
But the administration is walking a fine line not to treat Suu Kyi like a head of state. Experts from the Center for Strategic and International Studies in a recent report warned Obama of dangers if he meets Suu Kyi and ignores Thein Sein, a former general who surprised even critics by embracing reform.
Obama, who conferred with Suu Kyi by telephone before deciding on Clinton’s trip last year, has been widely expected to take a break from election campaigning to see her, but the White House has not commented on his plans.
Suu Kyi will hold nearly 100 events across the United States including being feted Wednesday in the US Capitol by lawmakers of both parties as she accepts the Congressional Gold Medal, one of two top US civilian awards.
Representative Joe Crowley, a longtime advocate on human rights in Myanmar and a leader of the effort to award Suu Kyi the Congressional Gold Medal, said that lawmakers were “bursting” with excitement for her visit.
“In many respects, it’s the culmination of an effort that we’ve been part of for some time now,” Crowley told AFP.
“The notion to have her here in the US Capitol, in the Rotunda, receiving the highest award that Congress can give on the heels of her spending a decade and a half under house arrest is just remarkable,” he said.
“It just reiterates again that by perseverance and fortitude, anything is possible.”
Crowley said, however, that Myanmar was “not where we want (it) to be” on democracy and human rights. The United States has repeatedly voiced concern over the treatment of minority groups including Rohingya Muslims.
Amid a stream of bad news from the Middle East, the Obama administration has cautiously cast Myanmar as a success story. US officials opened talks with the then junta as part of Obama’s policy of reaching out to unfriendly regimes.
In hopes of encouraging reform, Obama in July suspended sanctions to allow US investment in Myanmar, despite Suu Kyi’s concerns about doing business with the state-owned oil and gas company which has been widely accused of labor violations.
As Suu Kyi was flying into Washington, Myanmar’s state media announced the release of another 514 inmates. A spokesman for the democracy movement Generation 88 told AFP that at least 15 were political prisoners.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland withheld comment pending more details on the prisoner release.
Nuland said there was “obviously a lot more to be done” in Myanmar, which she said the United States would address both with Suu Kyi and Thein Sein, although she declined to say which US officials would meet with the president.
Kurt Campbell, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs who led the initial outreach to Myanmar, said that the administration was “very supportive” of Thein Sein’s efforts and his trip to New York.
“If you compare to where we were a year ago, a year and two months ago, it’s inconceivable how much progress that we’ve made since then,” he said.
“Now the key is to sustain it. Hopes have been raised and we can’t let there be a gap between hope and the challenges that obviously exist on the ground,” he said.
After Washington, Suu Kyi will head to the states of New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Indiana, Kentucky and California to accept awards, speak to students and scholars, and greet refugees from her country.
The hectic schedule has worried some of Suu Kyi’s supporters. The 67-year-old fell ill in June during a punishing tour of Europe.
Suu Kyi has not visited the United States since before the 1990 elections. She worked in New York at the United Nations headquarters from 1969 to 1971.