Burma's pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi addressed U.S. lawmakers for the first time on Wednesday, asking them to help push for the release of more than 2,000 political prisoners and for a UN probe into human rights abuses in her country.
The freedom of these prisoners is "crucial in deciding" whether the new quasi-civilian Burmese government "is sincere about its democratic aspirations," she said in a video message recorded in Burma and aired at a Washington hearing of a House of Representatives panel.
"Why are they still in prison," she asked of the political detainees languishing in Burmese prisons under what some rights groups call inhumane conditions.
"If this government is really intent on making good progress towards democracy, if it is sincere in its claims that it wishes to bring democracy to Burma, there is no need for any prisoners of conscience to exist in the country," she said in her message to the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific.
It is the first time the 66-year-old Nobel laureate, who was released in November after herself spending most of the past two decades under house arrest, has submitted such a statement to a U.S. congressional panel.
The United States and other Western governments have made freedom for Burmese political prisoners a key prerequisite for any easing of tough sanctions against Burma.
Aung San Suu Kyi also called on American lawmakers to push the new government to implement a UN Human Rights Council resolution adopted in March calling for prisoner releases, freedom of information and association, an independent judiciary, and political reconciliation.
"I would like to request you to do whatever you can to ensure that the requests and demands of the United Nations Human Rights Council resolution are met as broadly, as sincerely, and as quickly as possible by the present government of Burma."
"That will open up the real road for democracy for all of us."
Aung San Suu Kyi also called for U.S. congressional support for an international probe into human rights in her country as sought by UN human rights envoy Tomas Ojea Quintana, who is currently barred from visiting Burma.
She said the inquiry would be intended not as a tribunal to punish violators, but to ensure rights violations do not recur.
"It is simply a commission of inquiry to find out what human rights violations have taken place and what we can do to ensure that such violations do not take place in the future."
Quintana last visited Burma in February 2010 and described widespread abuses such as land confiscation, forced labor, and extra-judicial killings.
Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy won 1990 elections but was never allowed to take power, warned of a long path toward democracy.
"It is going to be a long road; it has already been a long road and a difficult one, and no doubt the road ahead will have its difficulties as well," she said.
But she added: "With the help and support of true friends, I'm sure we will be able to tread the path of democracy, not easily and perhaps not as quickly as we would like, but surely and steadily."
Human rights groups say that Burma has a record of severe human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings, custodial deaths, torture, and frequent rape of displaced women from minority groups.
U.S. President Barack Obama's administration abandoned a previous policy of diplomatically isolating Burma and has attempted to engage the government over the past 18 months, but has achieved little progress.
Reported by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.