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Burma’s opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi on Wednesday urged US lawmakers to push for a UN-backed probe into human rights in her country as she warned of a long and difficult road to democracy.
Suu Kyi, who was released in November after spending most of the past two decades under house arrest, spoke on a video in a first-ever message to the US Congress, a stronghold of support for the Nobel Peace Prize winner.
She asked lawmakers to do “whatever you can” to support the work of the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Burma and assured that a so-called commission of inquiry would not be a tribunal.
“It is simply a commission of inquiry to find out what human rights violations have taken place and what we can do to ensure that such violations do not take place in the future,” she told a House of Representatives hearing.
Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy won 1990 elections but was never allowed to take power, warned it will take time to reform Burma
“It is going to be a long road; it has already been a long road and a difficult one, and no doubt the road ahead will have its difficulties as well,” she said.
But she added: “With the help and support of true friends, I’m sure we will be able to tread the path of democracy, not easily and perhaps not as quickly as we would like, but surely and steadily.”
The United States has publicly supported a UN-led probe – a longstanding demand of activists. But it has done little to make it a reality, worrying its efforts would be futile so long as Asian countries – particularly China – are opposed.
UN-led commissions of inquiry elsewhere in the world have led to charges and prosecution, with Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir risking arrest if he travels to countries that recognize the International Criminal Court.
Human rights groups say that Burma has a record of severe human rights abuses including extrajudicial killings, custodial deaths, torture and frequent rape of displaced women from minority groups.
Recent deadly clashes in far-northern Kachin state have triggered an exodus of refugees toward the border with China.
Suu Kyi called on Burma’s rulers to free some 2,000 other prisoners which rights groups say are detained for political reasons and often held in poor conditions.
“Why are they still in prison if this government is really intent on making good progress toward democracy? If it is sincere in its claims that it wishes to bring democracy to Burma, there is no need for any prisoners of conscience to exist in this country,” she said.
Burma held elections in November 2010 which the regime said was a step toward democracy, with the junta later handing over to nominally civilian rulers. But many outside observers say that the changes are purely cosmetic.
A recent joint study by Physicians for Human Rights and Johns Hopkins University found that in western Chin state, 91.7 percent of households had at least one family member who had been forced to work for the military in the past year.
One area of Chin state with particularly high rates of child conscription and sexual assault was under the command of Colonel Zaw Min Oo, who is now in parliament, said Chris Beyrer of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
“In post-election Burma, a military commander whose forces violently repressed the Chin people now represents those same households and communities in the new parliament. That is not change, it is impunity,” Beyrer told the committee.
“The US has recently shown swift and effective leadership in diplomacy on calling for investigations into the killing of civilians by the Kadhafi regime in Libya. Why not Burma, where the evidence is overwhelming?” he said.
President Barack Obama’s administration in 2009 launched a dialogue with Burma, concluding that the previous Western policy of trying to isolate the government had failed.
The administration has repeatedly said it plans to keep pursuing diplomacy despite deep disappointment over the results.