United States lifts sanctions as Congress hails Aung San Suu Kyi
US Treasury drops Thein Sein and Thura Shwe Mann from 'Specially Designated Nationals' list
The United States lifted sanctions on two of Myanmar's top leaders as the Congress hailed Aung San Suu Kyi a hero of democracy in a lavish ceremony unthinkable only months ago.
The move to end the sanctions on Myanmar's president, Thein Sein, and parliamentary speaker Thura Shwe Mann came just hours after Suu Kyi had called for US sanctions crippling her impoverished nation to be lifted.
The US Treasury late on Wednesday dropped both Thein Sein and Shwe Mann from its list of "Specially Designated Nationals", those individuals and companies sanctioned for links to terrorism, narcotics or other crimes. They had been placed on the list in 2007 as the US stepped up pressure on the then-ruling military junta, in which Thein Sein served as first secretary and Thura Shwe Mann was joint chief of staff of the armed forces.
The iron-fisted junta ruled for decades but, since taking office last year, a reformist government under former general Thein Sein has freed political prisoners and allowed Suu Kyi's party into electoral politics.
"From the depths of my heart I thank you, the people of America … for keeping us in your hearts and minds during the dark years when freedom and justice seemed beyond our reach," Suu Kyi said.
"We believe that we can go forward in unity and in peace. There will be difficulties in the way ahead, but I'm confident that we shall be able to overcome all obstacles with the help and support of our friends."
Suu Kyi met fellow Nobel Peace laureate US President Barack Obama for the first time, after being presented with the Congressional Gold Medal in the Rotunda on Capitol Hill.
The White House said Obama reaffirmed US support for political and economic reforms in Myanmar, and full protection of human rights, in order to shape "a more peaceful, free and prosperous future" for the country.
Freed in 2010 after 15 years under house arrest, Suu Kyi received a rapturous welcome on her first visit to Washington since her release.
"It's almost too delicious to believe, my friend, that you are here in the Rotunda of our great Capitol, the centrepiece of our democracy, as an elected member of your parliament," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said.
But Clinton said a different phase of Suu Kyi's work was just beginning as she helps build democracy in Myanmar.
Suu Kyi was also praised by veteran Republican Senator John McCain who, in a moving speech, called her "my personal hero". "I want to thank you … for teaching me, at my age, a thing or two about courage," said McCain, 76, who spent more than five years in the notorious "Hanoi Hilton" as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam conflict.
Suu Kyi's own remarks, from a podium flanked by six US flags and white marble statues of Abraham Lincoln and US civil war general Ulysses Grant, were bookended by standing ovations.
"This is one of the most moving days in my life," said Suu Kyi, who described herself as "a stranger from a distant land".