As Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was arriving for a historic visit to long-isolated Burma, the leading democracy advocate in that Southeast Asian nation was recounting a story that captures both the hopefulness of the moment and the fragility of that hope.
Aung San Suu Kyi, who has spent most of the past 23 years under house arrest, was speaking by video link Wednesday with an audience at the Council of Foreign Relations in Washington. After her most recent release early this year, she recounted, she wanted to publish letters in Burma that she has been sending to a Japanese newspaper, the Mainichi Shimbun.
A few months ago, she said, the regime objected to publication of one letter because it mentioned "the executive committee of the National League for Democracy," the party that Aung San Suu Kyi heads and that the regime has long vilified. She refused to remove the reference, and the letter was not published.
More recently, the regime objected to an article because it mentioned "political prisoners." Officials asked her to change the reference to "prisoners." She declined, she said Wednesday, for the logical reason that she does not favor the release of all prisoners. But when the regime agreed to let her say "prisoners of conscience," she accepted the compromise, and her article was published.
The anecdote illustrates the opening that has occurred over the past few months, the control the regime still wields -- and Aung San Suu Kyi's desire to exploit the opening as fully as possible, in a spirit of compromise.
"It requires a bit of risk," she said. "Nothing is guaranteed... but we've got to make the best of the opportunity that has arisen over the last few months."
That reportedly is the message she delivered during a recent phone call with President Obama, which helped persuade him to dispatch Clinton.
But Aung San Suu Kyi, in her usual polite way, also managed to communicate a note of caution to the United States and other countries that might be tempted to reestablish ties with the regime too quickly.
Asked whether she favored more engagement, she said she would be "very happy to see the kind of changes" inside Burma that would justify more engagement. She said aid should be given only in ways that promote democratization. She said Americans should "make it quite clear that you are watching" and "that any regression from the path of reform will be met with the right kind of reaction."
She said she is confident Congress would not lift economic sanctions until its conditions, including the release of all political prisoners, are met. But she stressed that even more important than such a release is the establishment of rule of law, without which, she said, people could easily be thrown back into prison.
For a leader who has been herself vilified, kept from her family and isolated from friends and colleagues -- not to mention deprived of the position of leadership that was rightfully hers after her party overwhelmingly won an election in 1990 -- Aung San Suu Kyi seemed remarkably cheerful, optimistic and un-embittered. "I'm not trying to forget the past," she explained. "We need to remember the past" to do better in the future -- but not in anger or recrimination.
She joked that her party was prepared to discriminate in favor of women when it reenters politics and assembles a list of candidates, but said she didn't think it would be necessary because "I think women are just more capable."
And at the end of the 75-minute session, noting the time difference in Burma from Washington's morning, she suggested that "next time we will do this in the middle of your night."