WASHINGTON – The United States lifted sanctions on President U Thein Sein and Thura U Shwe Mann as the Congress hailed Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as a hero of democracy in a lavish ceremony unthinkable only months ago.
The move to end the sanctions on the president and Pyithu Hluttaw speaker on September 19 came just hours after Daw Aung San Suu Kyi had called for the remaining US sanctions on Myanmar to be lifted.
She also met fellow Nobel Peace laureate President Barack Obama for the first time, after being presented with the Congressional Gold Medal in the imposing surroundings of the historical Rotunda on Capitol Hill.
The White House said President Obama reaffirmed US support for political and economic reforms in Myanmar, and full protection of human rights, in order to shape “a more peaceful, free and prosperous future” for the country.
“From the depths of my heart I thank you, the people of America ... for keeping us in your hearts and minds during the dark years when freedom and justice seemed beyond our reach,” Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said, as she was handed the award.
“We believe that we can go forward in unity and in peace,” she said.
“There will be difficulties in the way ahead, but I’m confident that we shall be able to overcome all obstacles with the help and support of our friends.”
The US Treasury later dropped both U Thein Sein and Thura U Shwe Mann from its list of “Specially Designated Nationals”, those individuals and companies sanctioned for links to terrorism, narcotics or other crimes.
The two men “have taken concrete steps to promote political reforms and human rights, and to move Burma away from repression and dictatorship toward democracy and freedom”, the Treasury said in a statement.
They had been placed on the list in 2007 as the United States stepped up pressure on the then-ruling military government, in which U Thein Sein served as first secretary and Thura U Shwe Mann was joint chief of staff of the armed forces.
Freed in 2010 after at total of 15 years under house arrest, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi received a rapturous welcome on her first visit to Washington since her release.
“It’s almost too delicious to believe, my friend, that you are here in the rotunda of our great Capitol, the centrepiece of our democracy, as an elected member of your parliament,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said.
But Ms Clinton said a different phase of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s work was just beginning as she helps build democracy in Myanmar.
“The United States will stand with her, with the president of Burma and those who are reformers ... as they fan the flickers of democratic progress and press forward with reform,” the top US diplomat vowed.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was also praised by veteran Republican Senator John McCain who, in a moving speech, called her “my personal hero.”
“I want to thank you ... for teaching me, at my age, a thing or two about courage,” said Mr McCain, 76, who spent more than five years in the notorious “Hanoi Hilton” as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam conflict.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s own remarks, from a podium flanked by six US flags and white marble statues of Abraham Lincoln and US civil war general Ulysses S Grant, were bookended by standing ovations.
“This is one of the most moving days in my life,” said Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who modestly described herself as “a stranger from a distant land”.
The Obama administration has taken pains to ensure the celebration around her visit does not detract from a simultaneous trip to the United States by U Thein Sein, who ushered in the reforms to global surprise.
US officials say U Thein Sein – who will take part in the UN General Assembly this week – deserves to be recognised for pushing through such speedy changes.
The United States began rolling back its economic embargo in July, opening Myanmar up to US investment despite Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s earlier unease about US firms doing business with the state-owned Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise.
“There are very many other ways in which the United States can help us to achieve our democratic ends and help us to build up the kind of democratic institutions that we are in such need of,” Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said on September 18. “Sanctions are not the only way.”