Not since the release of Nelson Mandela has the emancipation of one person made such a difference. Parallels between Mandela and Myanmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi are testament to that. Mandela's release triggered the lifting of the anti-apartheid economic blockade and put his country on the road to majority rule. Suu Kyi's freedom after many years of detention and her election to parliament have ushered in an easing of Western sanctions imposed on her impoverished nation's former military junta and pointed it towards democracy.
Now Suu Kyi has followed in Mandela's footsteps by accepting America's highest civilian honour, the Congressional Gold Medal, in an emotional ceremony in Washington. At the same time, the US responded to her call to further ease sanctions by lifting restrictions on Myanmese President Thein Sein and parliamentary speaker Thura Shwe Mann - former junta leaders who now lead a reformist government - in recognition of efforts to promote political reforms and human rights, and to move Myanmar towards democracy.
Suu Kyi has highlighted the need for national reconciliation and American help in building democratic institutions. This does not mean turning away from China, with which Myanmar developed closer ties under the junta. It is in Myanmar's interest to maintain warm ties with China and for the US and China to have friendly relations.
Suu Kyi and dozens of members of her National League for Democracy now sit in parliament and hundreds of political prisoners have been freed. There is understandable optimism about Myanmar's future after 50 years of military misrule. One parallel her people do not need with Mandela's South Africa, however, is its struggle to end the scourge of rampant poverty and inequality. The increasing flow of overseas investment as the West lifts sanctions is reason for hope. But it could easily dry up if she and her supporters cannot hold the government to promised reforms.