Myanmar democracy icon Suu Kyi begins key U.S. tour

Tue Sep 18, 2012 10:38am EDT

* Suu Kyi to be feted in Washington, tour US heartland

* 1991 Nobel laureate key barometer of Myanmar reform

By Paul Eckert

WASHINGTON, Sept 18 (Reuters) - Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi opened a two-week tour of the United States on Tuesday with talks with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the latest step of a rapid normalization of U.S. ties with the former pariah state.

Suu Kyi, who won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize for championing democracy in opposition to a ruthless military junta that held her under house arrest for years, will be feted by the U.S. Congress, human rights groups and Washington think tanks.

She will also visit the large emigre community from her country, formerly known as Burma, in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and make a series of public speeches from New York to California.

Suu Kyi's 17-day U.S. tour will coincide with a visit by Thein Sein, Myanmar's reformist president, who heads to New York on Sept. 24 to address the U.N. General Assembly.

Thein Sein, former junta general, was scheduled to meet U.S. officials on the sidelines of U.N. meetings and his aides said he would try to convey Myanmar's urgent need for the import ban and other American sanctions to be eased.

Suu Kyi's election to parliament in April helped to transform Myanmar's pariah image and convince the West to begin rolling back sanctions after a year of dramatic reforms, including the release of about 700 political prisoners in amnesties between May 2011 and July.

Before she arrived in the United States on Monday, Myanmar announced a pardon of more than 500 prisoners in an amnesty that included at least 80 political detainees, according to activists.

The announcement, seen as a step that could strengthen the former military state's growing bonds with Washington, did not make clear if any of the 514 were political prisoners, but two activist groups who monitor dissidents jailed in Myanmar said more than 80 were given presidential pardons.

The U.S. State Department reacted cautiously on Monday to news of the amnesty, repeating its call for "the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners."

The U.S. Campaign for Burma, a Washington-based democracy advocacy group, said the United States was correct to retain sanctions for leverage and remove them only gradually amid ongoing war against ethnic minority groups in Myanmar.

"The fragility of the peace talks with various ethnic groups and the situation in western Burma remain serious issues that need more substantial progress before we believe any additional U.S, sanctions are lifted," said Jennifer Quigley, the group's advocacy director.

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