NEW HAVEN, Connecticut – Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi says her country cannot be called a genuine democracy until it has an independent judiciary, even though it is undergoing a stream of breathtaking political and economic reforms.
Suu Kyi, whose struggle for democracy and human rights in Myanmar earned her a Nobel Peace Prize, spoke at Harvard and Yale University on Thursday as part of her landmark U.S. visit this month. Her Ivy League speeches came on the day Myanmar President Thein Sein paid tribute to her during a U.N. General Assembly speech that reflected the momentous changes in the country, also called Burma, over the past year.
“Once we can say that we have been able to re-establish rule of law, then we can say that the process of democratization has succeeded,” Suu Kyi said at Yale. “Until that point I do not think that we can say that the process of democratization has succeeded.”
She said the judiciary is “practically non-existent.”
“And until we have a strong, independent, clean judiciary, we cannot say that Burma is truly on the road to democracy,” Suu Kyi said.
Thein Sein and Suu Kyi are key players in Myanmar’s political transformation after a half-century of military rule. Thein Sein, a former general and prime minister, became president last year after elections in November 2010, and introduced reforms that changed the political landscape after almost five decades of military repression. He has freed political prisoners, eased censorship, opened dialogues with ethnic rebels.
Suu Kyi, who spent about 15 years under house arrest during the former military regime until November 2010, now heads the main opposition group with 43 seats in parliament, which is dominated by allies of the former regime.
Still, her presence in parliament is huge step toward democracy. She has also been named head of a 15-member parliamentary committee tasked with helping to implement rule of law in the country. Her party had boycotted the November 2010 elections but took part in by-elections in April.
Before by-elections, Suu Kyi said, she and members of her National League for Democracy party had to educate citizens who had been treated as “immature children” under the country’s dictatorship on the importance of casting a vote and the meaning of democracy.
People need to understand they have the power to change their own community, she said. On the day of the elections, you will be the equal of the president himself,” Suu Kyi recalled telling voters. “He will have one vote, you will have one vote. Use it.”
Last week, the 67-year-old Suu Kyi met privately with President Barack Obama and accepted the highest honor from Congress, the Congressional Gold Medal, which was awarded in 2008 while she was under house arrest for her peaceful struggle against military rule.
After Suu Kyi’s entry into parliamentl, the U.S. has normalized diplomatic relations with Myanmar and allowed U.S. companies to start investing there again.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday the U.S. will ease its import ban, which had been a key plank of remaining American economic sanctions.
Suu Kyi last week voiced support for the step, saying Myanmar should not depend on the U.S. to keep up its momentum for democracy. For years she advocated sanctions as a way of putting political pressure on the then-ruling junta.
American economic sanctions have been gradually lifted since the beginning of this year in response to the reforms.
At Harvard and Yale, students asked Suu Kyi what kept her going during her years of house arrest. She said “inner resources” and a focus on others are needed to face adversity.
“Whenever I heard people in distant places speaking out for our cause,” she said at Harvard, “I was encouraged.”
Anderson reported from Boston. Christoffersen in New Haven. Associated Press writer Pat Eaton-Robb, in Hartford, contributed to this story.