Aung San Suu Kyi and the Road Ahead for Burma

By Michel Gabaudan
Photographs of Aung San Suu Kyi and her father, Gen. Aung San, on sale in Yangon in November.

The political thaw in Burma has advanced so quickly that it is hard to believe Aung San Suu Kyi was here in Washington yesterday, giving her first public speech at the outset of an historic trip to the U.S.

Yet as Suu Kyi was quick to point out in her remarks (which you can view in the video below), the country’s progress to date is fragile and easily reversible. Indeed, she reminded the audience at the U.S. Institute of Peace that she remains but the leader of a small opposition group in Parliament, not the head of government.

Refugees International was privileged to attend Suu Kyi’s speech, and to hear her make the case for Burma so eloquently. Our work with the Burmese people – and particularly those who have been displaced or deprived of nationality – goes back to the early nineties and the efforts of our European representative, Yvette Pierpaoli. Yvette made repeated trips to the Burmese border, and carried out one extended expedition inside Burma to document the plight of the displaced and those pressed into forced labor. Tragically, Yvette and RI board members Penny and David McCall died in 1999 in northern Albania on a mission to protect and assist fleeing Kosovar refugees.

Last month, the Burmese government released the names of more than 2,000 individuals who had been removed from the government's blacklist. Yvette's name was among them, along with our president emeritus, Lionel Rosenblatt. For me, seeing their names helped illuminate just how much Burma has changed in recent months – and just how important RI’s work there has been.

Over the past year, RI has traveled to Burma twice to shed light on humanitarian needs. In November, we visited conflict-ridden Kachin State to press for greater humanitarian space and assistance for IDPs. And today RI is back in the region to seek relief for the stateless Rohingya. In the weeks ahead, RI will be formulating recommendations for the government of Burma and the international community, which we hope will improve the human rights and humanitarian situation.

Suu Kyi made clear yesterday that the responsibility for reforming Burma rests primarily with its people, but she was equally insistent that Burma’s friends in the international community must remain engaged as that reform process plays out. RI agrees with that statement wholeheartedly, and the Burmese people can count on our support, our aid – and perhaps most important, our honesty – for many years to come.