Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has wrapped up a triumphant tour of the U.S. which featured a number of highlights including accepting Congress’ top award, meeting with President Barack Obama, and successfully calling for the removal of sanctions against her country.
The 67-year-old Nobel laureate on Wednesday boarded a flight from Los Angeles, California, heading for Rangoon after a two-week visit, which was her first as an elected official in Burma and since being released from nearly two decades of house arrest.
Speaking to nearly 3,000 Burmese in Los Angeles on Tuesday night, the Nobel laureate said that Burma has to make up for decades of mismanagement under the former military junta as the new nominally civilian government implements sweeping democratic reforms.
"Because we had lived under the military regime, we are now 50 years behind the rest of the world. To compensate for these 50 years, we have to run while others walk. We will have to work very hard to catch up with everyone else,” she said at her last public appearance before her departure.
Aung San Suu Kyi asked the Burmese community in the U.S. for their support as Burma strives towards a democratic political system.
“The Burmese people who live [in the U.S.] have a variety of opportunities and rights, compared to those living in our country. Whatever citizenship you have now, I would request that you work to help our country in a practical way."
The leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) opposition party and Member of Parliament praised the U.S. for its support, but emphasized that Burma would need to create a new form of democracy according to the country’s own needs.
"We wish to learn from everybody who has achieved a transition to democracy, and also ... our great strong point is that, because we are so far behind everybody else, we can also learn which mistakes we should avoid," Suu Kyi said.
"It can't be like America's democracy because Burma is not America," she said.
"Each country develops its own type of democracy, not something that should be imposed from above. I've always been against so-called disciplined democracy, which has been advocated by the military regime."
Aung San Suu Kyi also addressed ethnic tension in western Burma’s Rakhine state, where violence between Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists in June left more than 80 people dead and tens of thousands displaced.
A small group of Muslim activists protested outside of the Los Angeles Convention Center—where the Burmese lawmaker spoke Tuesday—against what they called “genocide” in Rakhine.
The Rohingya, whom the U.N. considers one of the world’s most persecuted minorities, are not recognized as an ethnic group in Burma even though they have lived in the country for decades.
Aung San Suu Kyi said that the Burmese government had not dealt swiftly to contain the June violence and stressed the need to educate the residents of Rakhine state to avoid further clashes.
“When the conflict began in Rakhine state, actions were not taken effectively or quickly enough according to the law, and therefore the conflict escalated … That's why [preserving] rule of law is very important there,” she said.
The clashes erupted after 10 Muslims traveling on a bus were beaten to death by a Buddhist mob in apparent revenge for the rape and murder of a Rakhine woman, although it was later learned that the passengers had no connection to the incident.
Tension between the two groups remains high in Rakhine, nearly four months since the initial incident took place, and Aung San Suu Kyi said that the government needs to put measures into place to prevent misunderstandings that could ignite further unrest.
“We do not support or accept any violation of human rights … [We must] determine why the violation of human rights has become habitual [in Rakhine],” she said.
“It is not enough to take action only when it happens … How are we going to change the people’s mindset and the culture of their society so that they do not violate [each other’s rights]?" she asked.
Democratic change and national reconciliation were among a number of topics Aung San Suu Kyi addressed at a dizzying number of speaking events during her 17-day visit, which included trips to Washington, New York, Kentucky, Indiana, and California.
She arrived in the U.S. on Sept. 17, visiting the capital to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, and to hold meetings with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama on the status of economic sanctions against her country.
In New York, Aung San Suu Kyi visited the United Nations, where she worked in the 1970s, and met with U.N. General Secretary Ban Ki Moon.
While in New York, she also met with Burmese President Thein Sein, who had traveled to the U.S. to address the U.N. General Assembly.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the easing of an import ban on Burmese goods at a meeting with Thein Sein on the sidelines of the U.N. meeting.
Aung San Suu Kyi also visited Yale and Harvard universities, before speaking at a public event in San Francisco over the weekend.
The high-profile U.S. visit, in addition to trips to Thailand and Europe earlier this year, has done much to demonstrate the opposition leader’s skills as a politician in the international arena.
On Saturday, the BBC aired an interview with Thein Sein who, when asked if Aung San Suu Kyi would be a good leader, replied that he would accept her if elected, but said that he alone could not amend stipulations in the country’s constitution that prevent her from running.
According to Burma’s 2008 Constitution, framed under the previous military junta chief Than Shwe, any Burmese national whose relatives are foreign citizens or hold foreign citizenship is not qualified to serve as president or vice-president.
“It all depends on the people. If the people accept her, I will have to accept her,” Thein Sein told BBC.
“I can only quote the constitution. The constitution clearly defines the responsibility of the military and every sector of the parliament. We cannot exclude the military from politics.”
Speaking on Tuesday night in Los Angeles, Aung San Suu Kyi dismissed questions about what she would do if she were to become Burma’s president.
“You should consider how the present president of Burma is handling the situation, rather than asking me how I would handle it if I were the president of Burma ... Let's be practical.”
Reported by Nayrein Kyaw for RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Khin May Zaw. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.