Burma’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi lamented Tuesday that the international community was becoming “too optimistic” about the reform process in the country, cautioning against taking democratization for granted.
She made the observation after talks with visiting South Korean President Lee Myung Bak and in a video conference at the launch of a freedom project in Washington by former U.S. president George W Bush.
“We are at a point in history when there is a possibility for transition, but I do not think we can take it for granted that this transition will come about,” the 66-year-old Nobel Laureate told reporters after her meeting with Lee in Rangoon on Tuesday.
“The intention is there and there is goodwill from all over the world, but we have to make sure that we do not dissipate this goodwill,” she said.
The opinions of the opposition leader, elected to parliament in April after having spent most of the last two decades under house arrest, are considered an important marker for the removal of long-running international sanctions.
Lee, on the first trip to the country by a South Korean leader in three decades, said his informal meeting with the Nobel laureate was “as important, if not more so” than the official purpose of his state visit, which included talks with Burmese President Thein Sein in the capital Naypyidaw Monday.
“I have sincere hope that the people here in Burma … will live a much freer and better life and I hope that Ms. Suu Kyi’s dream and aspirations to bring about a democratic Burma will be realized as soon as possible,” he said.
Aung San Suu Kyi said she had no objection to a U.S. proposal to suspend sanctions on Burma, but cautioned against removing them altogether and against placing too much confidence in reforms without further commitment from Thein Sein’s government.
"I sometimes feel that people are too optimistic about the scene in Burma,” she told the conference in Washington, speaking via Skype at the launch of Bush’s new "Freedom Collection" project.
“You have to remember that the democratization process is not irreversible,” she added, noting that reforms by the government would only be set once the powerful military firmly committed to democratization.
She said sanctions, which were imposed as a penalty for human rights abuses committed during decades of rule under the previous military junta, could be a useful tool for further encouraging needed reforms.
"I am not against the suspension of sanctions as long as the people of the United States feel that this is the right thing to do at the moment. I do advocate caution, though," she said.
"I believe sanctions have been effective in persuading the government to go for change," she added.
The EU suspended for a year all economic and trade sanctions on Burma in April, save for an arms embargo. Canada later followed suit.
U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration has engaged in dialogue with Burma since reforms began last year, but the U.S. is retaining trade restrictions and has yet to make clear what kind of investment it will allow.
Suspending sanctions rather than removing them entirely is “a way of sending a strong message that we will try to help the process of democratization but if this is not maintained then we will have to think of other ways of making sure that the aspiration of the people of Burma for democracy is respected," Aung San Suu Kyi said.
She added that the government was continuing to hold some 300 political prisoners, despite amnesties granted to prisoners over the past year as part of a series of reforms by the government.
Lee said he was optimistic that Burma could follow a path similar to South Korea’s in achieving both industrialization and democratization.
“I believe that this country is now entering into an era of change,” Lee said. “I have high confidence that this wonderful country … is going to be a true democracy,” he said.
In talks Monday with Thein Sein, the two sides had discussed Burma’s previous military links to North Korea.
“I hope his government will refrain from engaging in any activities with the DPRK [North Korea] that may be deemed to be considered as violating various UN Security Council measures. Based upon that agreement, Korea is prepared to cooperate more fully [with Burma],” Lee said.
Former U.S First Lady Laura Bush, who introduced Aung San Suu Kyi at the Washington event and who has been a staunch supporter of the opposition leader, said she was “cautiously optimistic” about Burma’s future.
“I think it looks like the first steps are being made,” Laura Bush said in an interview after the event.
“But I want the people of Burma to know that the institution you have to build for democracy take a long time,” she said, encouraging the people of Burma to identify and communicate to other countries what kind of international aid they would like to be given.
Reported by Khin Khin Ei, Win Naing, and Soe Min for RFA’s Burmese service. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.