Myanmar's Suu Kyi plans trip to U.S. in September

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

NAYPYITAW, Myanmar -- Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi said Tuesday she will accept an award in the United States in September, making her first U.S. trip in at least two decades.

Suu Kyi was greeted enthusiastically by world leaders and human rights activists during her recent trips to Thailand and Europe. A trip to the United States would likely garner the same level of attention as she re-emerges on the world stage after not leaving her home country for more than 20 years.

The Atlantic Council think tank said Suu Kyi would be presented its Global Citizen Award recognizing "visionary global leaders" Sept. 21 in New York.

Suu Kyi confirmed her trip but gave no other details on her itinerary. The U.S. State Department said Suu Kyi would be invited for meetings with the U.S. government during her visit, but it had no details.

"We look forward to an appropriate date welcoming Aung San Suu Kyi here to the State Department and her having bilateral meetings here in the U.S.," department spokesman Patrick Ventrell told reporters.

Suu Kyi is sure to be feted in the United States for her long struggle against military rule in her homeland and for championing democracy. She is revered by both Republicans and Democrats and has been a guiding force in U.S. policy toward Myanmar over the past two decades, and she has been supportive of the Obama administration's engagement of the reformist Myanmar President Thein Sein.

The U.S. last week suspended investment sanctions that had been in force against Myanmar for 15 years. Suu Kyi cautiously supported that move, but it did expose a rare difference between her views and those of the U.S. government, which decided to allow U.S. companies to invest with Myanmar's opaque state oil and gas enterprise. Last month, Suu Kyi opposed foreign companies working with that enterprise because of its lack of openness.

Suu Kyi spoke by phone Monday to Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell, a prominent voice in Congress on Myanmar issues. McConnell's office said they discussed U.S. sanctions legislation.

The date of the award presentation is near the Sept. 18 opening of the U.N. General Assembly session in New York, an event often well-attended by prominent international leaders and activists. Before her marriage in the early 1970s, Suu Kyi lived in New York for a couple of years and worked at the United Nations.

The longtime leader of Myanmar's pro-democracy movement spent most of the last 20 years under house arrest. During the brief freedoms, she never left her home country because she feared the military leaders then in charge of the country would not let her return. Freed from her final house arrest in late 2010, she was elected to parliament in April.

On Tuesday night, she dined with the Czech Republic's foreign minister, who gave her a bittersweet tribute from another tenacious fighter for democracy.

Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg at a dinner Tuesday night presented her with a dried, yellow rose on behalf of his country's late president, Vaclav Havel, who had nominated Suu Kyi for the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize. She was unable to accept the prize until traveling to Norway in June.

The rose, embedded in a glass case, had been laid on Havel's coffin after his death in December by Myanmar democracy activists, and was retrieved by a Czech artist who preserved it. Jiri Sitler, a friend of Havel and former Czech ambassador to Myanmar in Schwarzenberg's delegation, explained to The Associated Press the idea behind the unusual gift.

He said that in 2005, Havel sent Suu Kyi -- then under house arrest -- birthday greetings in a note in which he said he wanted to meet her and how happy he would be if he could personally give her a rose.

They never met in person, communicating only by phone and mail. She once wrote in her Japan's Mainichi newspaper column that, "It was (Havel's) vigorous and warm personality and his total commitment to the support of movements for democracy and human rights the world over that made his friendship so real and vibrant and made me feel we were linked to one another by close ties of understanding."

Suu Kyi, wearing a red traditional jacket and with white roses in her hair, shook hands with Schwarzenberg and his delegation as she accepted the gift. She spoke about the special relationship between Havel's country and hers, and especially of the support Havel had given Myanmar's democracy movement.

"I am very sad that I never had the opportunity to meet him but I feel very close because his thoughts and his writings guided me during the years of struggle," Suu Kyi said.

Associated Press writer Matthew Pennington contributed from Washington.

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