Burmese opposition leader and former political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi called Wednesday for an easing of U.S. sanctions on her country and targeted investment to help Burma shed its pariah past and crushing poverty.
In an interview with Washington Post editors and reporters, the Nobel laureate expressed no bitterness toward the military regime that held her under house arrest for 15 years. She said her goal as an activist and politician is to promote lasting political reconciliation.
Suu Kyi said that it is time to further ease economic sanctions on Burma in recognition of its political transformation over the past several years, adding that the Burmese people can now take control.
“I think it’s time because it’s time for us to take responsibility for our own country,” she said.
Suu Kyi had previously urged the United States to go slow in lifting sanctions and embracing the revamped Burmese government, in which former and current military figures hold prominent posts.
The United States has normalized diplomatic relations with Burma and allowed U.S. companies to resume investing there. Investment should focus on relieving the country’s pervasive poverty and improving basic services such as roads, Suu Kyi said.
Suu Kyi is in Washington to collect the Congressional Gold Medal that was awarded in absentia in 2008 when she was under house arrest. She also met privately with President Obama at the White House.
The 17-day visit is the human rights advocate’s first to the United States since her release from house arrest in 2010.
Her release, and her election to parliament this year, helped persuade the Obama administration to loosen economic and political restrictions imposed in response to nearly 50 years of repressive military rule in Burma.
The democratic gains are limited — and come with strings attached — but Suu Kyi said she is willing to give the government time to make further reforms.
Likewise, she said she wants to afford the government leeway to address several religious and ethnic rights disputes. She bristled slightly at the mention of criticism from outside human rights advocates that she and her party have not been forceful enough in defending minority rights.
“I do protect human rights, and I hope I shall always be looked up as a champion of human rights,” she said.
Suu Kyi said that the government should have the opportunity to defuse the situation and that her movement would get involved only if asked by the government.
It is unclear whether Suu Kyi will run for president in elections planned for 2015.
Her visit to the United States will overlap that of Burma’s reform-minded president, Thein Sein, with whom she cooperates. The president, a member of the former ruling junta, will attend the annual gathering of world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly next week. He is expected to meet with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other U.S. officials there.
Sanctions were helpful in steering the regime toward reform and in focusing outside attention on Burma, but in many cases their usefulness has run its course, Suu Kyi said.
She was not specific about which sanctions should remain for now. She said she understands the concern of some of her longtime backers outside Burma that lifting sanctions too soon would reduce leverage on the regime to open up further.
She stepped carefully around the question of whether regime figures should face prosecution for atrocities and human rights abuses committed before the country began to open up. She said solutions should be restorative, rather than retributive.