For Myanmar Activist, A Welcome 40 Years In Waiting

Sep 23, 2012
Originally published on September 23, 2012 10:43 am

Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has made a remarkable transition from a detained human rights dissident to a member of Myanmar's parliament.

In her first trip to the U.S. in 40 years, Suu Kyi talked a lot about how she's learning to compromise with the former military men who kept her under house arrest for years.

"We are beginning to learn to work together. We are beginning to learn the art of compromise, give and take [and] achievement of consensus," Suu Kyi said last week at the U.S. Institute of Peace. "It is [a] good that this is beginning in the legislature and we hope this will spread and become part of the political culture of Burma."

Suu Kyi said she hopes the U.S. can help in this learning process. On Wednesday, in the rotunda of Congress, Suu Kyi paid tribute to the man who started the reforms in Myanmar, President Thein Sein, and pointed out that one of his top advisers was present in the room for the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony.

"I am particularly encouraged by the presence of Minister U Aung Min, who has been leading peace talks in our country, and whose presence reinforces my faith in reform and reconciliation," she said.

That was good politics, says Michael Green of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Green, a Bush administration adviser on Asia, says Suu Kyi understands that she needs to work with reformers in government if democracy is to succeed.

"The only way she can do that is by trying to make them comfortable and reach out without compromising on her core principles," Green says. "So it's admirable in the spirit of a Nelson Mandela, and it's shrewd in the spirit of [Lyndon B. Johnson]."

Green says it was amazing to see Suu Kyi talk about all of this at a time of such partisan bickering in Washington.

"It was really quite striking to watch her speak so positively about people who had been responsible for her suffering," he says. "Although she didn't intend for us to take our own lessons away from this, I hope people do."

Suu Kyi didn't weigh into U.S. politics at all during her visit. She even went out of her way to be bipartisan as she spoke at a dinner with the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute.

"I believe in our people and I believe in democrats everywhere — democrats with a small 'D,'" she said.

Suu Kyi says Myanmar has a steep learning curve when it comes to democracy. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also referred to that in her comments at the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony. She described a conversation she had with the speaker of parliament in Myanmar last December.

"He went on to tell me that they were trying to teach themselves by watching old segments of the West Wing," Clinton said. "I said, 'I think we can do better than that.'"

Clinton says it might have been easier for Suu Kyi to remain above the political fray. Instead, she's now in parliament, chairing the Rule of Law and Tranquility Committee, and compromising with her former jailers.

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Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Burmese democracy Activist Aung San Suu Kyi is her first visit to the United States in 40 years. She's spending this weekend in New York. Ms. Suu Kyi, who is revered for her peaceful struggle against military rule, has been honored and celebrated at stops along her trip. The Nobel Laureate accepted the Congressional Gold Medal soon after she arrived in Washington this past week. In the process, she managed to do something quite unusual these days - bring Republicans and Democrats together.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Aung San Suu Kyi has made a remarkable transition from a detained human rights dissident to a member of Myanmar's parliament. And she's been talking a lot on her trip here about how she's learning to compromise with former military men, who kept her under house arrest for years.

AUNG SAN SUU KYI: We are beginning to learn to work together. We are beginning to learn the art of compromise, give and take, the achievement of consensus. It is good that this is beginning in the legislature and we hope that this will spread out, and become part of the political culture of Burma.

KELEMEN: And in that talk at the U.S. Institute of Peace, she said she hopes the U.S. can help in this learning process. The next day, in the Rotunda of Congress, Aung San Suu Kyi paid tribute to the man who started the reforms in Myanmar, President Thein Sein; and pointed out that one of his top advisors was there in the room for Gold Medal ceremony.

KYI: I am particularly encouraged by the presence of Minister U Aung Min, who has been leading peace talks in our country, and whose presence reinforces my faith in reform and reconciliation.

KELEMEN: That was good politics, says Michael Green of the Center for Strategic and International studies. He was a Bush administration advisor on Asia, who says Aung San Suu Kyi understands that she needs to work with reformers in government if democracy is to succeed.

MICHAEL GREEN: And the only way she can do that is by trying to make them comfortable and reach out, without compromising on her core principles. So, it's admirable in the spirit of a Nelson Mandela and it's shrewd in the spirit of an LBJ.

KELEMEN: And Green says it was amazing to see her talk about all of this at a time of such partisan bickering here in Washington.

GREEN: It was really quite striking to watch her speak so positively about people who had been responsible for her suffering and her supporters' suffering, and to see Republicans and Democrats come together in such a common spirit. And although she didn't intend for us to take our own lessons away from this, I hope people do.

KELEMEN: Aung San Suu Kyi did not weigh into U.S. politics at all. She even went out of her way to be bipartisan, as she spoke at a dinner with the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute.

KYI: I believe in our people and I believe in democrats everywhere - democrats with a small D, I will say.

(LAUGHTER)

KYI: Well, that is what you taught me just now. I was listening very carefully.

KELEMEN: And she says Myanmar has a steep learning curve when it comes to democracy. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also referred to that in her comments at the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony. She described a conversation she had with the speaker of parliament in Myanmar last December.

SECRETARY HILLARY CLINTON: He went on to tell me that they were trying to teach themselves by watching old segments of the "West Wing."

(LAUGHTER)

CLINTON: I said I think we can do better than that, Mr. Speaker.

KELEMEN: Clinton says it might have been easier for Aung San Suu Kyi to remain above the political fray. Instead, she's now in parliament, chairing the Rule of Law and Tranquility Committee and compromising with her former jailers.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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