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Democracy Advocate Aung San Suu Kyi: ‘We Should Not Depend on U.S. Sanctions’ for Reforms in Myanmar

Aung San Suu Kyi speaks at the U.S. Institute of Peace on Tuesday. Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images.

When introducing Myanmar democracy advocate-turned-legislator Aung San Suu Kyi at an event on Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she had the chance to visit Suu Kyi while she was still under house arrest and to talk to her about transitioning from “symbol to stateswoman.”

It was the stateswoman who took the podium at the U.S. Institute of Peace on Tuesday. Suu Kyi’s two-week Washington, D.C., visit also includes a meeting with President Obama and a Congressional Gold Medal ceremony.

Suu Kyi, a new member of Parliament in Myanmar, also known as Burma, said U.S. sanctions on her country have had little economic effect and are not necessary to encourage democratic reforms — that instead the changes need to come from within.

“We should not depend on U.S. sanctions to keep up with democracy. We need to do it ourselves,” she said. The United States seemed to heed that advice on Wednesday as the Treasury Department removed sanctions that blocked U.S. assets of Myanmar’s President Thein Sein and a lower house of parliament speaker.

Myanmar has struggled with democracy since ending its military rule, which spanned 1962 to 2011.

Under President Thein Sein, hundreds of political prisoners have been freed and some media rules relaxed. As relations with the United States improved, Secretary Clinton visited the country last winter. Thein Sein will be attending the U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York City next week.

Suu Kyi’s opposition party — the National League for Democracy — only recently was allowed to re-register and operate as a party. It won 43 seats out of the 664-member Parliament in by-elections in April.

Suu Kyi said it took “a lot of soul-searching” to be able to defend Myanmar’s constitution, but “politics is about compromise” and doing what’s best under the circumstances. She said her party still stands by its election platform of defending human rights, ending ethnic conflict within Myanmar and changing the constitution.

As for bilateral relations with the United States, Suu Kyi encouraged engagement but emphasized that the relationship must be based on mutual respect and mutual understanding.

“To be able to help us realize our aspirations, you have to understand what they are,” she said. The executive, legislative and judicial branches in Myanmar are learning how to work together and build up the rule of law. She said international support also is needed in the areas of education and health care.

But help is not a one-way street, she said, adding that the two countries can learn from each other. “What does Burma have to give the United States? We can give you the opportunity to engage with people who are ready and willing to change a society,” just as the United States is seeking its own changes, she said.

“By helping others, you will learn how to help yourselves.”

(You can watch the video of the event on the U.S. Institute of Peace’s website.)

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