Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar, also known as Burma, began a lengthy visit to the U.S. by meeting Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday in Washington. Suu Kyi, the opposition leader who was under house arrest for 15 years, is now free to travel and has been welcomed abroad as if she were a head of state.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
It's been a long time since Aung San Suu Kyi visited the U.S., but it's a homecoming nonetheless — and this time with star treatment.
Suu Kyi, the opposition leader from Myanmar, also known as Burma, lived in New York from 1969-1971, while working for the United Nations, and her eldest son, Alexander Aris, studied and settled in the U.S.
She was welcomed Tuesday by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the State Department, part of a 17-day visit where she will be cheered at stops across the country. The many accolades will include receiving the Congressional Gold Medal, which she was awarded in absentia in 2008, a time when she was still under arrest at home.
Such a visit would have been hard to imagine a couple of years ago, but now Suu Kyi has had an outsized influence on U.S. government policy toward her home country, and this visit offers her an opportunity to strengthen and refine that influence.
The Obama administration was careful to consult with Suu Kyi before it began to ease unilateral sanctions in May and step up engagement with Myanmar's new nominally civilian government.
Suu Kyi's November 2010 release after 15 years under house arrest and her election in April to the Burmese parliament were key factors in the administration's decision.
Treated As A Head of State
In her recent trips abroad — to Thailand and to Europe — Suu Kyi has been welcomed as if she were a head of state. Her high-profile tour will overlap with a visit by Myanmar's President Thein Sein, who will attend next Tuesday's U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York.
Some analysts worry that the fate of Myanmar's fledgling political reforms is too dependent on cooperation between Suu Kyi and Thein Sein, and they urge foreign leaders to avoid causing any rupture between them.
For all Suu Kyi's influence in Washington, though, the U.S. government recently ignored her warnings on an important issue.
In June, Suu Kyi raised the issue of the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), the main state energy firm. It is reportedly a big money earner for the Burmese military, and Suu Kyi asked foreign governments to hold off on cooperating with MOGE until it becomes more transparent and accountable.
But on July 11, the Obama administration lifted a ban on investment in Myanmar, including investment in the energy sector.
The administration was reportedly swayed by energy firms and advocates of a more active engagement with Myanmar. They argued that if U.S. firms didn't invest in Myanmar's resources, other countries' companies surely would.
Despite Suu Kyi's repeated calls for "ethical investment" in her country, she has not been critical of Washington's policy reversal, and it will be interesting to see whether she raises it on this trip.
Suu Kyi will also need to field difficult questions on the status of Myanmar's Muslim Rohingya minority, who live along the border with Bangladesh. At least 78 people were killed this summer in clashes between Rohingya and majority Buddhists in western Rakhine state.
Suu Kyi has refused to state whether or not Rohingya, many of whom have lived in Myanmar for generations, are in fact Burmese citizens. This may or may not please her domestic constituents, but it is unlikely to satisfy foreign critics, some of whom see her equivocation as out of step with her commitment to human rights and ethnic equality.
Behind the scenes, meanwhile, Suu Kyi's visit may occasion some sweating, hair-pulling and gnashing of teeth among event organizers, hosts and journalists seeking to facilitate and chronicle the visit.
Some of them may have already experienced the inscrutable scheduling, miscommunications and general chaos resulting from the sheer crush of people trying to gain access to her.
They may also have encountered Suu Kyi's personal team of handlers, guards and physicians who have loyally protected her from the threat of violence from the former ruling junta, but who have scant experience with international travel and public relations.