Burma democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi arrives in the United States this week, only her second trip overseas after spending most of the past two decades in detention. Her trip includes stops in Washington, New York and the central states of Kentucky and Indiana. Her visit comes as the Obama administration is considering easing its remaining sanctions on Burma.
Within the last year, Aung San Suu Kyi, has made the transition from being Burma’s most famous dissident to becoming a member of her country's parliament.
Her schedule on her U.S. trip includes a visit to Washington, where she will receive the Congressional Gold Medal, Congress' highest civilian honor.
Human rights organizations say Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from decades of house arrest in 2010, national elections that same year and the release of hundreds of political prisoners constitute extraordinary progress toward ending the country’s repressive military rule. In the early 1990s the US imposed sanctions following the junta's refusal to hand over power to a democratically elected parliament, the violent suppression of popular protests, and other major human rights violations.
Burma’s President Thein Sein came to power last year and institued these reforms to seek relief from the economic sanctions. But Tom Malinowski, the Washington director for Human Rights Watch, says Aung San Suu Kyi has been promoting a more measured response. “She has supported a gradual lifting of sanctions against Burma. So have we. The question is how that process is sequenced and how it’s used to create incentives for more reform in Burma," he said.
There has already been some easing of restrictions. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently led a business delegation to encourage investment in Burma. And international assistance and training programs are being established.
Still, Malinowsky says the U.S. must continue to press Burma's government for peaceful reconciliation with disenfranchised ethnic minorities, the release of all political prisoners and, most of all, real limits on the power of the military. “It’s not at all clear whether the military is going to cede the strong power it still has over most aspects of life in Burma. That is the real test and we have not yet seen whether Burma will meet that test," he said.
He says Aung San Suu Kyi’s high-profile visit to the U.S. is a step in the right direction and an indication that conditional engagement with Burma is working.