Suu Kyi begins landmark US visit

Burma democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is to be honoured in Washington and given the US Congress' highest award, in the latest milestone in her remarkable journey from political prisoner to globetrotting stateswoman.

The Nobel Peace laureate's 17-day US tour will include meetings at the State Department and probably the White House. She then goes to New York, the Midwest and California.

The trip comes as the Obama administration considers easing its remaining sanctions on Burma.

Since her release from house arrest in late 2010, Ms Suu Kyi has gone from dissident to parliamentarian as Burma has shifted from five decades of repressive military rule, gaining international acceptance for a former pariah regime.

After being confined to her homeland since 1989 because she was either under detention or afraid she would not be permitted to return, Ms Suu Kyi has in the past four months spread her wings. She has travelled to Thailand and five nations in Europe, where she was accorded honours usually reserved for heads of state.

Revered by Republicans and Democrats alike, Ms Suu Kyi will get star treatment too in the US, although her schedule is being carefully planned to avoid upstaging the itinerary of Burma president Thein Sein, who arrives in the US the following week to attend the United Nations General Assembly's annual gathering of world leaders in New York.

"The idea that she will be at the Rotunda of the US Capitol, to receive the highest award Congress can give, just a couple of years after she was under house arrest in her own country, is just remarkable," said Democratic Rep Joe Crowley, one of the politicians who sponsored her 2008 award of the Congressional Gold Medal.

For years, some of Washington's most powerful politicians have been among Ms Suu Kyi's strongest advocates and it has been a rare area of bi-partisan consensus. Both when sanctions against the Burma junta were imposed, and over the past year when they have been suspended, Democrats and Republicans have found common cause.

The Obama administration is now considering easing a ban on imports from Burma into the US, the main plank remaining in the tough economic sanctions that Washington has chipped away at this year to reward the progress towards democracy.

While Congress last month renewed the sanctions for another year, President Barack Obama could waive its provisions. He may however look for further concrete action by Burma to earn it - such as the release of hundreds of political prisoners who remain in detention despite the freeing of hundreds of other dissidents this year.