Suu Kyi's historic US trip marred by passport protest

 

As the Burmese opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, arrived in the US for an 18-day visit, there was controversy back home after another leading activist cancelled his own trip to America in protest at the treatment of colleagues who have been refused passports.

Ms Suu Kyi is to be honoured in Washington this week when she receives the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest award the joint houses of the US parliament can give. She will also spend time with Burmese communities in San Francisco and New York, the latter of which was her home for two years in the 1960s when she worked for the United Nations.

But the start of what is likely to be remembered as an historic trip for the Nobel laureate – her first to the US for more than two decades – threatened to be overshadowed by controversy at home.

Min Ko Naing, who was freed from a 65-year jail sentence earlier this year, was to have been recognised in the US by the National Endowment for Democracy as one of five Burmese activists who have made significant contributions to the country's shift towards democracy. Ms Suu Kyi is to deliver a keynote speech at the event in Washington on Thursday.

But Mr Naing pulled out because other activists were refused passports to travel. While Burmese authorities gave passports to Mr Naing and several other former activists, about two dozen others were told their applications had been put on hold and could take a year to process.

"I really value the award given by the National Endowment for Democracy but I have decided not to travel to Washington to accept it," Mr Naing said. "On principle, I will not travel alone when my colleagues are denied their citizens' rights. We should be treated as equals and be given passports together."

Ms Suu Kyi is likely to be feted by both Democrats and Republicans in the US, but she will be conscious of the need to avoid too many hysterical headlines.

Burma's President, Thein Sein, is himself visiting the US after Ms Suu Kyi and she will not want to be seen to upstage him. Earlier this year, he called off a trip to Thailand after she travelled to Bangkok days before him and received standing ovations.

Now a member of parliament and not simply an opposition leader, Ms Suu Kyi will also need to remain alert to the hard-elbowed business of politics. The US is currently considering easing a ban on imports from Burma and there are reports that Burmese authorities want Ms Suu Kyi to lobby on their behalf. The start of her visit came as the government released up to 500 prisoners. It was not immediately clear how many, if any, were political prisoners.

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