Aung San Suu Kyi Makes First U.S. Trip In Decades

Burmese democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi has gone from political prisoner to globe-trotting stateswoman and now she's in Washington to pick up numerous awards, including the highest honor from Congress. Her first public appearance is at the U.S. Institute of Peace, where she will speak along with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who visited Suu Kyi's house in Burma.

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Burmese democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi is on a landmark trip to the United States, her first in four decades. She is thanking Americans for being friends of the democracy movement in her homeland, Myanmar, also known as Burma. Now, she says, it's time for the U.S. to be friends with the whole country and consider easing sanctions.

The Nobel laureate made her case after a meeting at the State Department, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Nine months after visiting Suu Kyi's lakeside villa, once the Nobel laureate's prison, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was chatting with her at a photo op in the State Department about Suu Kyi's plans to visit Burmese refugees in Kentucky and in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

SECRETARY HILLARY CLINTON: There's so much excitement and enthusiasm about the fact that you can actually come, and then I was delighted that when you are in Louisville, you're going out to one of the horse farms.

KELEMEN: Across the street, at the U.S. Institute of Peace, Clinton spoke about Suu Kyi's remarkable transition from a symbol of democracy to a stateswoman and a member of parliament and someone who understands the need for pragmatic compromise.

CLINTON: So 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.

KELEMEN: Clinton says Suu Kyi's visit is also a reminder that there is a lot of work ahead to keep Myanmar on the path from military dictatorship to democracy. The Nobel laureate says Myanmar's president, Thein Sein, seems keen to promote democratic reforms, but, like Clinton, Suu Kyi questioned how sustainable this reform process really is.

AUNG SAN SUU KYI: We are not yet at the end of our struggle, but we are getting there. We have passed a first hurdle, but there are many more hurdles to cross.

KELEMEN: In her speech, Suu Kyi supported something her country's president wants to see: the lifting of U.S. sanctions.

KYI: I do support the easing of sanctions because I think that our people must start taking responsibility for their own destiny. I do not think we should depend on U.S. sanctions to keep up the momentum of our movement for democracy. We've got to work at it ourselves, and there are very many other ways in which the United States can help us to achieve our democratic ends.

KELEMEN: She says her country's education system is in shambles, as is health care, and the U.S., she says, can offer practical help. Suu Kyi also appealed for help in promoting ethnic harmony in a country torn apart by numerous ethnic conflicts, and she had a warning for American businesses seeking to invest in the mineral-rich country. Myanmar's judiciary, she says, is its weakest arm.

KYI: While the United States seems to be concentrating a lot on the economic aspect of its relations with my country, I hope they will do this in full awareness of the need to promote rule of law.

KELEMEN: As Aung San Suu Kyi continues her cross-country journey through the U.S., President Thein Sein is preparing for his own trip to speak at the United Nations' General Assembly next week in New York. His government has just released some 500 prisoners. Suu Kyi says 90 of them were political detainees. And while she welcomed their release, she says by her count, there are still 200 political prisoners behind bars in her country. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

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