12:27 P.M. EDT
PRESIDENT OBAMA: It is an extraordinary pleasure for me to welcome State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and her delegation to the White House. This is not her first visit to the Oval Office, but it is her first visit in her official capacity. And it represents a remarkable process that Burma is undergoing.
When I was first elected, Daw Suu was still under house arrest. And because, in part of advocacy by the United States and others in the international community, but more importantly, because of the courage and strength and resilience of the Burmese people, what we’ve seen over the last several years is a transition to elections, a representative legislature that still has significant constraints from the previous military government but is giving voice to the hopes and dreams of a new generation of Burmese people. And as a consequence, now Aung San Suu Kyi, as State Counsellor, Foreign Minister, is in a position with her government to begin shaping a remarkable social and political transformation and economic transformation there.
In part because of the progress that we’ve seen over the last several months, I indicated, after consulting with Daw Suu, that the United States is now prepared to lift sanctions that we have imposed on Burma for quite some time. It is the right thing to do in order to ensure that the people of Burma see rewards from a new way of doing business and a new government.
At the same time, we’re also going to be restoring the Generalized System of Preferences, which provides very important commercial and trading advantages for poorer countries as they enter into the global economy. And if you combine those two efforts, I think this will give the United States, our businesses, our nonprofit institutions, a greater incentive to invest and participate in what we hope will be an increasingly democratic and prosperous partner for us in the region.
In addition to the political transition that’s taken place, the economic reforms that are being initiated, Daw Suu has also helped to convene a peace conference so that the various ethnic groups and armed conflicts that have plagued this country for far too long can begin to be resolved. There’s a process of beginning to reach out and address some of the ethnic minorities, including in Rakhine State, that historically feel discrimination. And so there’s a broader process of transformation, reconciliation and hope that has emerged in a country that for decades was burdened by a military dictatorship and closed off from the world.
And I can tell you that when I visited as the first U.S. President ever to travel there, I could see the enormous potential that was about to be unleashed, and nobody represented that better than Aung San Suu Kyi.
So we are very hopeful about the future. We are hopeful about building on the friendship and partnership that we’ve already established, not just with the new government but, more importantly, with the Burmese people.
I would encourage Americans who have the opportunity at some point to travel to Burma, to do so. It is a beautiful country with a rich culture and wonderful people. And I think if I’m not mistaken, there’s a very welcome tourist industry that is developing.
So we look forward to partnering with you, State Counsellor, on a whole range of issues. And congratulations on the progress that’s been made. It is not complete, and I think Daw Suu is the first one to indicate that a lot of work remains to be done, but it’s on the right track. And if you would have predicted five years ago that Aung San Suu Kyi would now be here sitting as the newly elected representative of her country, many people would have been skeptical. But it’s a good-news story in an era in which so often we see countries going in the opposite direction.
STATE COUNSELLOR SUU: Well, I need hardly say that I’m very happy to be here, because this is an opportunity for me to thank all the people of the United States who helped us along our democratic struggle. It’s not yet at an end. We have reached a point where, as President Obama said, people did not expect us to reach five years ago, although we were quite confident that we’d get there. But now we have to go ahead.
There’s so much that has to be done in our country. And our party always said the most important thing was national reconciliation and peace.
In my country, fighting has been going on for decades, ever since we became an independent nation. We’ve never known a time when there was peace throughout the country. There was always fighting going on at some time, or someplace or the other. There are officially 135 ethnic groups in our country, and to keep them all united and keep them all to one purpose is not an easy matter. But we think that we can do that. We think that we can do that because what all of us want is a truly democratic, federal union — a union in which we can create true strength of our diversity, in which we can celebrate our diversity as a greater resource, a greater richness. We are trying to do that now, and we are grateful to all our friends — of course, the United States is more than included — who have been helping us in this process.
But unity also means prosperity, because people, when they have to fight over limited resources forget that standing together is important. So we want to develop our material resources. We want to make sure that our people are better off materially in order to strengthen our political initiatives. It’s not just a peace process; it’s also for the citizens that we are — headed by Dr. Kofi Annan, to look into matters in the Rakhine State. Communal strife is not something that we can ignore. It’s too important, it’s too serious for us to leave it even until the next year.
So this is one of the first initiatives we have taken, forming this commission to look into communal strife and tensions within the Rakhine State. We want everybody who is a citizen of our country to be entitled to the full rights of citizens. And we want to make sure that everybody who is entitled to citizenship is accorded citizenship as quickly and as fairly as possible. And this is what we are trying to do in Rakhine. And we hope that the world will recognize that we are sincere in trying to bring together different communities in what is a very poor state with tremendous potential.
If we can all come together, help them to develop the potential and to eliminate the poverty that so destroys the unity, I think it would be helping not just one country, but the world at large, by proving that divisions can be overcome, that we can create unity out of diversity, that we can put aside suspicion and misunderstandings, and come to an agreement so that we can all do this together.
The United States Congress has been more than friendly towards our efforts towards democratic reform, and over the years, they have done many things for us. And as we all know, sanctions have been one of the many steps they took in order to push democratic reforms in our country. We think that the time has now come to remove all the sanctions that hurt us economically, because our country is in a position to open up to those who are interested in taking part in our economic enterprises. We would like to invite all of you to come to see our country, to see why you should invest there, and see how you can invest there in such a way that you will benefit from it as much as we can.
I’ve always said that I have no use for businessmen who are incapable of making profits, so I expect your businessmen to come to our country to make profits so that we can make profits for us as well. If you can’t look after yourself, you certainly can’t look after other people. So we are very interested in successful companies, successful business enterprises coming to Burma, to looking around and to making new use of the opportunities open to them. Our new investment law will be adopted by the legislature quite soon, we hope within the next few weeks. And what with the lifting of sanctions and the new investment law, which I hope will be very attractive to many people all over the world, we think that our country is in a position to take off.
But for us, economic development is just part of the democratic process that we want to encourage in our country. There is still a lot to be done. We have a constitution which is not entirely democratic because it gives the military a special place in politics. We are very — I am, personally, very attached to our military because the army was founded by my father. And I want our military to be an honorable institution, loved and respected by the people, and capable of protecting and defending our rights and our honor in this world. But we do not think that politics is a place for the military.
So we will continue with our efforts to amend our constitution, to make our country a truly democratic union that our founding fathers dreamt of. And we look to the United States and our friends to continue with us along the road of progress — progress politically, progress socially and economically. And we look forward to the day when we can say that we, too, are in a position to help those less fortunate than we are in this world.
And I would like to take this opportunity to thank not just the people of the United States and the United States Congress and all of the various non-governmental organizations and individuals that have helped us, but also to President Obama personally for coming out to our country as the first American President ever to have done so and to recognize the potential of our people, especially our young people.
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you so much.
Thank you, everybody.
Q: What’s the timetable for lifting sanctions?
THE PRESIDENT: Soon.
12:42 P.M. EDT