Suu Kyi hopeful of democratic reform in Burma

Aung San Suu Kyi voiced guarded hope on Friday that democracy would come to Burma as the opposition leader warmly welcomed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the home that was her prison for years.

In scenes unthinkable before Burma’s recent reforms, Suu Kyi took Clinton by the arm and escorted her through the garden of her crumbling lakeside villa in the commercial hub Yangon where she was locked up until a year ago.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner said she supported Clinton’s trip a day earlier to Burma’s remote capital Naypyidaw and believed the nation had reached a “historic moment”.

“I am very confident that if we work together ... there will be no turning back from the road to democracy,” Suu Kyi said next to a beaming Clinton on a back porch surrounded by potted plants.

More needed to be done by the new military-backed government “but we hope to get there as soon as possible”, Suu Kyi added.

Clinton, who is the first US secretary of state to visit Burma in more than 50 years, nodded in agreement and said she saw “openings” during her three-day trip that “give us some grounds for encouragement”.

The wife of former president Bill Clinton has spent decades hobnobbing with the world’s most powerful but was visibly excited to meet Suu Kyi, repeatedly embracing the democracy champion and kissing her on the cheeks.

Clinton and Suu Kyi, two of the world’s most prominent women, also met away from aides for an expansive dinner on Thursday night at the US diplomatic mission whose chef prepared foods especially chosen to please Suu Kyi.

Clinton’s aides said she even brought from the US a chewy toy for Suu Kyi’s small but energetic dog. Suu Kyi nonetheless gave Clinton a friendly warning that her dog was sometimes aggressive towards strangers.

Clinton on Thursday hand-delivered a personal letter from President Barack Obama that thanked Suu Kyi for her “inspiration” to people around the world and said the US would stand by her “now and always”.

Despite the warm atmosphere at their meetings, Clinton and Suu Kyi both warned of serious worries in Burma. Activists say anywhere from hundreds to more than 1 500 political prisoners remain jailed and that rape and forced labour remain common in ethnic enclaves torn by decades of war.

“All hostilities must cease within this country as soon as possible,” Suu Kyi said.

Wide support
Suu Kyi repeatedly urged the rule of law, demanding that all political prisoners be released and “that no more are arrested in the future for their beliefs”.

The military of what was then Burma seized power in 1962 and ruled until March when the ruling junta nominally handed power to civilians.

President Thein Sein, while a former general, has surprised both the US and the opposition for speaking the language of reforms and initiating dialogue both with Suu Kyi and ethnic minorities.

Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy swept 1990 elections but the military junta never allowed her to take power. She enjoys wide support across the political spectrum in Washington and her blessing is seen as critical to any future US move to ease sweeping sanctions.

Suu Kyi did not mention sanctions but welcomed the small incentives that Clinton offered on Thursday after her talks with the government, including support for international financial institutions to assess Burma’s needs.

The opposition leader has indicated that she hopes to run in by-elections early next year, in a major test for how far the government is willing to tolerate political change.

‘Action for action’
Wrapping up her visit, the top US diplomat announced $1.2-million in new aid aimed at civil society to support microfinance, healthcare and help for the victims of landmines in the war-torn country.

Clinton said she told the country’s leaders that the US was assessing progress by the new leadership before it considers ending sanctions.

“We will match action for action and if there is enough progress, obviously we will be considering lifting sanctions,” Clinton said, but added: “We are still at the very early stages of this dialogue.”

In a further sign of a softening of the US stance, Clinton stepped back from a previous call for a UN-backed war crimes probe.

“We are going to support the principle of accountability and the appropriate mechanism to ensure justice and accountability will be considered,” she said.

“But I think it’s important to try to give the new government and the opposition a chance to try to demonstrate they have their own approach toward achieving that.”—AFP



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