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Democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi backed the lifting of sanctions on Burma and reassured China her landmark visit to the US was not aimed at containing Beijing’s influence.
The Nobel peace laureate, who spent 15 years under house arrest, thanked the US for its years of support but, as she received the first of many accolades on her tour, said that Burma must build democracy itself.
“I do not think that we need to cling onto sanctions unnecessarily because I want our people to be responsible for their own destiny and not to depend too much on external props,” Suu Kyi said in her trip’s first major appearance.
“In the end, we have to build our own democracy,” she said in a speech in which she appeared careful not to annoy leaders who have initiated reforms.
The opposition leader had long supported economic sanctions to pressure her jailers, Burma’s junta, which nominally disbanded last year.
The US has been rolling back restrictions, 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. Sanctions are not the only way,” Suu Kyi said.
Suu Kyi, now a member of parliament, said she believes President Thein Sein is “keen” on change in the nation but cautioned not to look just at the executive branch as the judiciary was reform’s “weakest arm.”
“We have passed a first hurdle, but there are many more hurdles to cross,” she said.
On the eve of Suu Kyi’s trip, her party said that authorities freed another 87 political prisoners in what analysts saw as a new gesture by Thein Sein ahead of his own visit to the US next week.
In the award ceremony before the Asia Society and US Institute of Peace, Suu Kyi took pains to reassure China, which was the junta’s main ally.
Many US observers believe Thein Sein launched the reforms out of concern over Beijing’s overwhelming political and economic dominance in Burma.
While acknowledging it was a “natural question” whether US interest in Burma was spawned by a desire to contain China, Suu Kyi said her country’s warming ties with Washington should not “in any way be seen as a hostile step towards China.”
“For us to put it very simply, it would be to our advantage for the United States and China to establish friendly relations. This would help us a great deal,” she said.
Suu Kyi, dressed in a red jacket with three small pink flowers in her hair, began her visit by meeting another of the world’s most prominent women, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who marveled at her political odyssey.
“It’s wonderful to see Suu Kyi back in Washington as a free and forceful leader of a country opening up to the world in ways that would have been difficult to imagine even recently,” Clinton said.
But Clinton warned that Burma still had “a lot of work” including freeing remaining political prisoners and ending alleged military contacts with North Korea.
“The government and the opposition need to continue to work together to unite the country, heal the wounds of the past and carry the reforms forward,” said Clinton, who paid a landmark visit to Burma in December.
“That is also key to guard against backsliding, because there are forces that would take the country in the wrong direction if given the chance,” she said.
Clinton 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, who is widely respected in Washington, has come under rare criticism from human rights activists, who have pressed for her to speak out on behalf of the 800,000-strong Rohingya population, whom Burma’s government does not even consider citizens.
Suu Kyi said that her party, the National League for Democracy, wanted to “help the government in any way possible to bring about peace and harmony,” but defended her record.
“We are not in a position to decide what we do and how we operate because we are not the government. I think this has to be understood by those who wish the NLD to do more,” she said.
Asked separately about the Rohingya in an interview with Washington-based Radio Free Asia, Suu Kyi said that the key was to “remove the roots of hatred.”
“That is to say you have to address these issues that make people insecure and that make people threatened,” she told the broadcaster’s Burmese service.