Myanmar’s Pro-democracy Leader Grasping Opportunities, Taking Risks

BY Larisa Epatko  November 30, 2011 at 1:43 PM EST


Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives in Naypyidaw, Myanmar, on Wednesday. Myanmar Deputy Foreign Minister Myo Myint is on the left. Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images.

Myanmar’s journey from isolation advanced Wednesday with the arrival of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and positive words from the country’s most well-known face of its pro-democracy movement.

“Now it seems like we have the opportunity to achieve our goals,” said democracy advocate and Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi from her home in Myanmar during a Council on Foreign Relations videoconference in Washington, D.C. “We also have to be prepared to take risks.”

The United States’ relationship with the Southeast Asian nation formerly known as Burma had deteriorated over the past two decades. But recent moves toward reforms under Myanmar’s new President U Thein Sein, including the release of some political prisoners and relaxing of media restrictions, prompted President Obama to send Clinton to the country to suss out the credibility of reforms and encourage more.

Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy party, said even more important than the release of the country’s 1,500 political prisoners was the establishment of a rule of law, without which the released prisoners could be easily jailed again. She also said groups such as hers are seeking changes to the constitution and hope to advance peace within the country — while small, armed secessionist groups representing different ethnicities continue to fight the government.

Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest off and on for 15 of 21 years before her release last year. She joked that she sometimes feels she was more rested while in detention compared to her busy life now.

Her party, which won a majority of seats in parliament in 1990 elections before the ruling military regime nullified the results, refused to register for elections in 2010 and was declared illegal. But this month, the National League for Democracy announced its intention to register as a political party to compete in upcoming elections.

The party now has the opportunity to “get closer to the people” and open offices all around the country, she said.

Although many, including Suu Kyi, said they welcome U.S. engagement to keep reforms in Myanmar alive, some human rights groups feel Clinton’s visit is premature and that the country should first address more of its humanitarian problems.

Amnesty International contends that political prisoners are mistreated and that the government is allowing continued attacks on ethnic nationalities. “Myanmar’s human rights situation has improved modestly in some respects but is significantly worsening in others,” the organization’s Myanmar specialist Benjamin Zawacki said in a statement.

Clinton plans to meet with Myanmar’s President U Thein Sein, the main driver of Myanmar’s reforms, on Thursday.

She is the first American secretary of state to visit Myanmar since John Foster Dulles in 1955.

Retired foreign service officer Priscilla Clapp and Human Rights Watch’s Tom Malinowski recently discussed the two countries’ renewing relations on the NewsHour:

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