President praises Nobel peace laureate’s fight for democracy, reform
YANGON ― President Lee Myung-bak on Tuesday met Myanmar’s iconic opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in the country’s old capital of Yangon to show appreciation for her decades-old fight for democracy and human rights.
He also visited the tomb of her father Gen. Aung San to pay his respect to the country’s independence hero, assassinated by his political foes in July 1947, six months before the country was liberated from Britain.
The site was the scene of North Korea’s 1983 bombing that killed 17 Seoul officials accompanying then President Chun Doo-hwan ― a reason why his state visit was kept under wraps amid tight security until he touched down here.
As a leader of a vibrant democracy, which suffered from decades of dictatorship, Lee pointed out that economic development should not proceed at the expense of democracy.
“One thing I pointed out during our meeting was that democracy, human rights and freedom should never be sacrificed for economic development,” Lee said during a joint press conference after his 40-minute talks with Suu Kyi at Sedona Hotel in downtown Yangon.
“Democracy is as important as economy, and she completely agreed.”
Suu Kyi, the 1991 Nobel peace laureate, agreed, stressing the importance of education for the people in the Southeast Asian state to lead their own future.
“President Lee understands perfectly that prosperity is no substitute for democracy and moreover, we are agreed on the importance of education,” she said in a calm yet clear voice.
President Lee Myung-bak meets Myanmar’s iconic opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi at a hotel in Yangon, Myanmar, Tuesday. (Yonhap News)
“We would like children of Burma to have access to a kind of education that will enable them to construct the future of this country in the way that they would want rather than in the way those who are ruling wish it to be.”
For Lee arrived Monday in Naypyitaw, the remote city to which the capital was moved from Yangon in 2005. In the morning, he flew to Yangon for talks with Suu Kyi and South Korean businesspeople operating here.
Lee’s visit was aimed at improving ties with the resource-rich country as its fledgling reforms widen access to its huge natural resources, market potential and geopolitical position.
Suu Kyi is the key driver of the country’s reform and move toward democratic rule, which the U.S., the EU and others have rewarded by relaxing or lifting their long-standing economic sanctions that have crippled Myanmar’s economy since the 1990s.
She entered parliament after her National League for Democracy party won a landslide victory in the April 1 by-elections. She was released in November 2010 after spending 15 years under house arrest since 1989.
During the press conference, Suu Kyi also underscored that genuine democracy will materialize when people are empowered.
“Genuine democracy can only come when the people are empowered, and people are confident that their future lies in their own hands, not in the hands of those who are ruling them,” she said. “In fact, genuine democracy comes when people understand the government is actually in their hands, not the other way around.”
Recognizing the international support for Myanmar’s reform efforts, she underscored that her country should capitalize on it for the sake of its people.
“The intention is there and there is a good will from all around the world,” she said.
“But we have to make sure that we do not dissipate this good will, and that we put it to the best use possible by making sure that it is used in the best way possible, which is for the sake of our people, not for any group, not for any individual, not for any organization, not for any one government, but for the people.”
At her father’s tomb, Lee laid a wreath in homage to the late leader. He also spent some moments of silence with his delegates for the victims in the 1983 bombing.
“I thought it was a courtesy for us to visit the Aung San national cemetery as I was the first head of state to make a state visit here since the new Myanmarese administration took office (last March),” Lee said.
“On the other hand, I hope that my visit could be some sort of solace to the bereaved families of the 17 victims (in the bombing) as this is the scene of the incident that should not have ever happened in the 20th century.”
Meanwhile, President Lee and his Myanmarese counterpart Thein Sein agreed to release a North Korean defector held in the country soon during their talks on Monday, said Kim Tae-hyo, senior presidential secretary for national security and strategy.
The defector, whose identity was withheld, has served his five-year prison term here for illegal entry into the country since March 2010.
Most defectors from the repressive state have made their way into South Korea after crossing the border into China and moving into a third country such as Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia.
The two leaders also discussed Myanmar’s alleged military cooperation with Pyongyang.
Thein Sein said that his country will abide by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the U.N. Security Council resolution 1874 banning Pyongyang’s long-range rocket launch, remarks Seoul believes indicate its will not to military cooperate with Pyongyang.
Lee also pledged to increase South Korea’s level of assistance to Myanmar and share South Korea’s development experience. The leaders also agreed to expand bilateral cooperation in energy, resource development and construction of infrastructure.
To deepen the countries’ friendship, the leaders agreed to increase people-to-people exchanges and cooperation in areas of sports and culture.
By Song Sang-ho, Korea Herald correspondent