Aung San Suu Kyi visited the White House on Wednesday as Burma’s de facto leader six years after she was released from house arrest, a triumphant moment for the democracy icon and for the Obama administration’s policy of engagement with antagonistic or hostile regimes.
But unlike in Cuba or Iran, President Obama’s decision to jump-start dormant U.S. relations with the long-isolated Southeast Asian nation in 2011 received critical support from Republican leaders. And the burgeoning democratic transition in Burma, also known as Myanmar, away from a half-century of brutal military rule could represent a rare bipartisan success story.
Washington is rolling out the red carpet for Suu Kyi, who had breakfast with Vice President Biden and congressional leaders before visiting the Oval Office. She will visit Capitol Hill on Thursday.
After her meeting with Obama, the White House announced that the United States would end a long-standing national emergency against Burma and further ease trade sanctions in the latest effort to normalize relations. Administration officials said they hoped the move will spur greater U.S. economic investment in the nation of 53 million people.
“It is the right thing to do to ensure that the people of Burma see rewards for a new way of doing business,” Obama said. He called Burma a “good news story in an era when so often we see countries going the opposite direction.”
Obama emphasized that Burma’s reforms were not complete, and human rights groups warned that the administration was relinquishing critical leverage over the military, which retains significant power.
For her part, Suu Kyi has faced sharp criticism for failing to address ethnic violence against the Rohingya Muslim minority and sectarian warfare that has prevented a fully representative government. The military-drafted constitution prevented Suu Kyi from becoming president even after her National League for Democracy swept to power in historic elections last year. She has assumed a newly created role as state counselor, in which she advises President Htin Kyaw.
In response to international pressure, Suu Kyi recently presided over a first-of-its-kind political summit of tribal groups and established a commission, overseen by former U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan, to make recommendations on the ethnic clashes.
“Unity also means prosperity, because people fight over limited resources,” she said in the Oval Office, emphasizing it was time to end the sanctions.
But her warm Beltway reception is evidence of the political capital invested in Burma’s fate on both sides of the aisle.
Obama’s landmark 2012 visit to Rangoon, the nation’s former capital, not only was preceded by a visit from then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in December 2011 but was also followed by a trip by Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) a month later.
McConnell had long been an influential voice on Capitol Hill in support of the sanctions on Burma’s military rulers, and Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who had spent 15 years under house arrest before being freed in 2010, personally invited him to visit her in January 2012. McConnell met with her and other Burmese leaders and came away convinced that concrete reforms from the military regime were underway.
The country “has made dramatic changes for the better,” McConnell said in June 2012, citing the release of political prisoners and Suu Kyi’s election to parliament. That month, he introduced a congressional resolution that accommodated the Obama administration’s waiver on restrictions on investment and financial services in Burma.
Derek Mitchell, who served as U.S. ambassador to Burma from 2012 until earlier this year, said Clinton reached out to McConnell on Burma during her first year at the State Department in 2009.
“In my first meeting with him in 2011, he said, ‘Our approach hasn’t worked; we want to work with you,’ ” Mitchell recalled in an interview. “His people said, ‘There are many political issues in Washington; this will not be one of them.’ We had a very productive partnership.”
Erin Murphy, a former Clinton aide who accompanied her to Burma in 2011, said McConnell’s trip was perhaps more important than Clinton’s, even though it received less international attention.
“I call it the trip that launched 1,000 trips,” said Murphy, now a consultant on Burma in the private sector. “At the time, they were not granting many visas. It was still tenuous and tentative. It was his vision: He was going to see the changes for himself.”
Obama has had a frosty relationship with McConnell, now the Senate majority leader, who in 2010 said the GOP’s most important goal was to make Obama a “one-term president.”
McConnell aides acknowledged a collaborative relationship with the administration on Burma. But they emphasized that the U.S. economic sanctions got results in pushing the military regime toward reforms, in contrast with Cuba and Iran, where Obama’s outreach has been fiercely opposed by most Republicans.
Foreign policy analysts said geopolitical factors have contributed to elevating Burma’s bipartisan appeal, citing the strategic importance of a nation that borders China and has had friendly relations with North Korea.
Both political parties “saw Burma as a country that was really reeling under pressure from China,” said Victor Cha, who served as Asia director for the National Security Council under President George W. Bush. “In that sense, it was like pushing on an open door.”
But Suu Kyi’s unique personal star power also helped bridge the ideological divide in Washington. The daughter of Aung San, the Burmese leader who secured independence from British rule before being assassinated, Suu Kyi long enjoyed a revered global standing for her push to restore democratic rule. She was awarded a Congressional Gold Medal during her previous visit to Washington, in 2012.
Inspired by Suu Kyi’s story, former first lady Laura Bush devoted attention to Burma while in the White House, prompting education initiatives. The George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas maintains a program to develop young political leaders in Burma.
“George Bush and Laura Bush were very much engaged and focused on [Suu Kyi’s] incarceration and the sanctions themselves,” said Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.), a leading advocate for human rights in Burma.