The US lifted sanctions on two of Burma’s top leaders, as Aung San Suu Kyi was hailed as a hero of democracy by the US Congress in a lavish ceremony.
The move to end the sanctions on Burmese President Thein Sein and parliamentary speaker Thura Shwe Mann came just hours after Suu Kyi had called for US sanctions crippling her impoverished nation to be lifted.
After being presented with the Congressional Gold Medal in the imposing surroundings of the historical Rotunda on Capitol Hill, Suu Kyi met US President Barack Obama in the Oval Office, in a historic meeting that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.
Both Nobel laureates, Obama and Suu Kyi, who wore a black blouse, black and white longyi and a pink scarf, sat side-by-side, smiling, as photographers were ushered into the room before their private meeting.
Burma was ruled by an iron-fisted junta for decades but, since taking office last year, a reformist government under former general Thein Sein has freed political prisoners and allowed Suu Kyi’s party into electoral politics.
“From the depths of my heart I thank you, the people of America… for keeping us in your hearts and minds during the dark years when freedom and justice seemed beyond our reach,” Suu Kyi said, as she was handed the award.
Amid the changes sweeping her South East Asian nation, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate said: “We believe that we can go forward in unity and in peace.
“There will be difficulties in the way ahead, but I’m confident that we shall be able to overcome all obstacles with the help and support of our friends,” Suu Kyi added.
Without comment, the US Treasury dropped both Thein Sein and Shwe Mann from its list of “Specially Designated Nationals” sanctioning individuals and companies for links to terrorism, narcotics or other crimes.
The two were placed on the list in 2007 as the US raised pressure on the then ruling military junta, in which Thein Sein served as first secretary and Shwe Mann was joint chief of staff of the armed forces.
Freed in 2010 after 15 years of under house arrest, Suu Kyi has received a rapturous welcome on her first visit to Washington since her release.
“It’s almost too delicious to believe, my friends, that you are here in the rotunda of our great Capitol, the centerpiece of our democracy, as an elected member of your parliament,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said.
But addressing the ceremony Clinton said a different phase of Suu Kyi’s work was just beginning as she helps build democracy in Burma.
“The United States will stand with her, with the president of Burma and those who are reformers… as they fan the flickers of democratic progress and press forward with reform,” Clinton vowed.
Suu Kyi was also praised by veteran Republican Senator John McCain who, in a moving speech, called her “my personal hero.”
The Obama administration has taken pains to ensure the celebration around her visit does not detract from a simultaneous trip to the US by Burmese leader Thein Sein, who ushered in the reforms much to global surprise.
US officials say Thein Sein, who will take part in the UN General Assembly next week, deserves to be recognised for pushing through such speedy changes.
The US began rolling back its economic embargo in July, opening Burma up to US investment despite Suu Kyi’s earlier unease about American firms doing business with the state-owned oil and gas company.
“There are very many other ways in which the United States can help us to achieve our democratic ends and help us to build up the kind of democratic institutions that we are in such need of,” Suu Kyi said on Tuesday. “Sanctions are not the only way.”
Many US observers believe Thein Sein launched the reforms out of concern over Beijing’s overwhelming political and economic dominance in Burma.
Clinton however has also called for Burma to address tensions in Arakan state, where recent violence between majority Buddhists and the Muslim Rohingya minority left scores dead and displaced tens of thousands of people.
Suu Kyi has come in for rare criticism from human rights activists, who have pressed her to speak out on behalf of the 800,000-strong Rohingya population.