U.S. officials applaud release of Suu Kyi

Obama administration officials cheered the release of activist Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar on Saturday but said they needed to see more positive steps before easing pressure on the isolated regime.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said she joined "billions of people all around the world to welcome the long-overdue release" of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate from house arrest in Yangon, the former capital.

She said the United States was calling on Myanmar's leader to make the release "unconditional, so she may travel, associate with fellow citizens, express her views and participate in political activities without restrictions."

Clinton also called on the military government, which faces international sanctions for human rights abuses, to release all of its 2,100 political prisoners.

But U.S. officials expressed little confidence that the regime wants to begin reconciliation within Myanmar.

A senior administration official noted that the government had waited until last week's disputed elections were over before freeing Suu Kyi, to make certain the revered activist's presence didn't threaten its decades-long control of the country, also known as Burma.

The official, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue, said that although the release is "a meaningful step," it may be only a "token gesture toward opening the activities of civil society."

He said the Burmese public's strong reaction to Suu Kyi's release suggested it would produce a new push for political liberalization in the country.

"We'll be watching to see how the regime reacts," he said.

He declined to say what steps the administration might take to ease pressure on the regime if it turns out that it intends to give Suu Kyi political freedom.

The release stirred speculation that the regime was hoping to relieve growing pressure from world powers and to divide the international community on how to treat Myanmar.

Michael Green, who was senior Asia advisor to President George W. Bush, said he believed the regime is trying to "drive a wedge" between countries that are seeking new sanctions and others that favor an easing. He said the government also wants to distract attention from the elections, widely judged as unfair.

"I don't think the junta did this to advance reconciliation," said Green, who is now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

The United States and many other Western countries have been discussing more sanctions and organizing an international commission of inquiry on human rights abuses by the regime.

China, which has fast-growing business ties to Myanmar, has joined India and some Southeast Asian countries in favoring an easing.

Washington has tried both overtures and punishments with Myanmar, but has seen little indication that it is interested in a stronger relationship with the United States.


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