Burma’s President and Opposition Leader Suu Kyi Visit the U.S., as Washington Eases Sanctions

The dual visit to New York City of Burma's President Thein Sein and its leading diplomatic icon, Aung San Suu Kyi, comes at a historic moment for a country emerging out of years of isolation

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Kyodo / Landov

Burma's President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi meet in New York City on Sept. 25, 2012, ahead of their appearances at U.N. events

Update: U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, at her New York City meeting with Burmese President Thein Sein on Sept. 26, announced her government intends to drop an import embargo imposed on Burma, one of the few remaining economic sanctions imposed on the Southeast Asian nation. Said Clinton: “In recognition of the continued progress toward reform and in response to requests from both the government and the opposition, the United States is taking the next step in normalizing our commercial relationship. We will begin the progress of easing restrictions on imports of Burmese goods into the United States. We hope this will provide more opportunities for your people to sell their goods into out market.”

The last time Burma’s President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi were supposed to visit a foreign country at the same time, the President bowed out. This was back in May, when Suu Kyi, the charismatic democracy icon, headed to Thailand. It was her first trip abroad in nearly two decades, after having endured years of house arrest by the ruling junta of which Thein Sein was a member. Under the President’s leadership of a new quasi-civilian government, Burma has been reforming with astonishing and mystifying speed, a rare example of a military dictatorship willingly devolving some of its power and opening up to the world. But no country’s leader, no matter how reform-minded, would want to be upstaged during a rare foreign trip by a charming, Oxford-educated Nobel Peace Prize laureate. So excuses were made about pressing engagements at home, and Thein Sein stayed put in the country also known as Myanmar.

(PHOTOS: Aung San Suu Kyi Tours the U.S.)

What a difference a few months make. Suu Kyi has been on a triumphal 17-day tour of the U.S., where she once lived while working for the U.N. as a young adult. But far from feeling sidelined by the spotlight that follows Suu Kyi wherever she goes, Thein Sein is heading to New York City for his own celebratory walkabout. The man dubbed Burma’s Gorbachev will be addressing the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 27 and has made history as the first Burmese head of state to visit the U.S. in half a century. On Tuesday, he even met with Suu Kyi at a New York hotel, underscoring the pair’s cordial relationship — quite a contrast to former junta leader Than Shwe’s deep antipathy toward the opposition leader.

Chief among Thein Sein’s goals in New York will be to persuade the U.S. to drop its remaining financial sanctions against the country, a move endorsed by Suu Kyi, who was once a staunch advocate of such economic restrictions. The sanctions were put in place by many Western nations because of the former military junta’s appalling treatment of Burma’s citizens, who watched their once bountiful land wither from Asia’s breadbasket to a nation where one-third of people live under the poverty line. The army regime imprisoned intellectuals, conscripted child soldiers and raped ethnic women. Since coming to power in 2011, Thein Sein has presided over widespread reforms, ranging from releasing hundreds of political prisoners to signing cease-fires with ethnic militias. One of his advisers says Thein Sein will use his speech at the General Assembly to trumpet these accomplishments and push for more foreign investment in Burma.

Suu Kyi’s own U.S. visit has included a powwow with President Barack Obama and the acceptance of the Congressional Gold Medal, which she was awarded four years ago but could not pick up then because she was under detention. In New York, she was feted at the Atlantic Council’s annual Global Citizen Awards dinner, along with musician Quincy Jones and Henry Kissinger, among others. In his remarks praising Suu Kyi — but also perhaps recognizing the role played by the Burmese government in the country’s transformation — the former U.S Secretary of State hailed “our guest from Burma” as the embodiment of how “societies become great when they turn confrontation into reconciliation.”

(MORE: Aung San Suu Kyi’s World: Portraits of Burmese Dissidents and Activists)

Suu Kyi’s unwavering commitment to democratic values in the face of an equally unyielding military junta is testament to her moral backbone. But the 67-year-old has received rare criticism for not speaking more forcefully on the smoldering issue of Burma’s ethnic minorities. Although Thein Sein’s government has reached cease-fire agreements with ethnic groups that for decades battled the central government, a bloody conflict with the Kachin ethnic group in the country’s north still festers. Earlier this year, sectarian violence convulsed Arakan (or Rakhine) state in the country’s far west, where clashes between the Buddhist Arakanese and Muslim Rohingya ended scores of lives and left more than 70,000 people, mostly Rohingya, displaced. Echoing the perspective of many of the country’s Bamar (or Burman) majority, Thein Sein has said the Rohingya are not Burmese nationals but recent Bengali immigrants and therefore should be deported. (The Rohingya say they have lived in Arakan for generations and were unfairly stripped of their citizenship by a controversial 1982 law.)

When she was freed from house arrest in late 2010, Suu Kyi spoke of her desire to hold a second Panglong conference to discuss the future of the country’s ethnic minorities, who make up some 40% of Burma’s population. The first such confab, back in 1947, was convened by her father, independence hero General Aung San, who was assassinated before he could see his homeland wrest its freedom from Britain a year later. Back then, Aung San promised the three ethnic groups that participated in the conference (the Kachin, the Shan and the Chin) that they would be given significant autonomy in the new Union of Burma. The military junta that grabbed power in a 1962 coup ignored Panglong’s promises. Strife between ethnic militias and the Bamar-dominated central government characterized the next few decades.

So far, Suu Kyi’s pledge to convene a second Panglong summit has not come to pass. Although she is a global icon, Suu Kyi is not Burma’s head of state. In May, her National League for Democracy won a by-election, and Suu Kyi is now a minority legislator in a parliament that is stacked full of men in uniform and their cronies. Still, despite the practical constraints under which Suu Kyi operates, some ethnic leaders have expressed disappointment that she has not said more about Burma’s ethnic tinderbox. Most notably, Suu Kyi has tended to sidestep the Rohingya dilemma, even as she has spoken eloquently on other human-rights issues. In a worrisome trend, other Burmese democracy icons have flatly stated that the Muslim group is not deserving of Burmese citizenship, with some even calling the Rohingya “terrorists.”

(MORE: The Lady Abroad: On First Foreign Tour, Aung San Suu Kyi Enchants and Lectures)

Earlier this month, while at the Atlantic Council in New York, Suu Kyi faced up to the country’s ethnic failings, even if Burma has been transformed in other ways: “We have to learn to live together as a union. We had great hopes that our diversity would be our strength. Those hopes have not been realized. We owe it to the world, to all those who have supported us, to make that change.”

For Thein Sein, those supporters aren’t just the U.S., which has been cautiously appreciative of the Burmese government’s reforms. Before arriving in the States, the Burmese President made a trip to China, which has in recent years served as Burma’s chief political patron and economic benefactor. One of Thein Sein’s most forceful decisions in the early months of his presidency was to suspend the construction of a Chinese-controlled mega-dam in Kachin state that would have submerged a local spiritual site while sending nearly all the electricity to neighboring China. (Chinese sources say dam construction may begin again soon, if Beijing’s lobbying has any effect.) There’s little doubt that the President’s cozying up to America is in part designed to balance Beijing’s outsize influence on Burma. Still, Thein Sein must tread cautiously when it comes to Burma’s No. 1 investor. Why else preface his U.S. visit with a China stopover? “Myanmar is in a transitional phase,” said Thein Sein at a trade fair in southern China, according to China’s state-run news agency Xinhua. “But … the policy of considering China as a sincere friend has not changed … China has provided a large amount of support and help to us for a long time and stood at Myanmar’s side even at our most difficult times. Our people will never forget this.”

Still, the month’s most soaring rhetoric on foreign soil was reserved for Suu Kyi. In New York, the Burmese democracy hero kept oil sheiks and international luminaries alike in her thrall. “I feel all Burmese are global citizens,” she said, “because we have been taken into the hearts of people all around the world.” No matter how much retired General Thein Sein will be commended for his reforms, it is Suu Kyi who still enjoys the world’s adoration.

— With reporting by Ishaan Tharoor / New York

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