WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi warned on Tuesday that reforms in her country had cleared only the "first hurdle" and said she supported an easing of U.S. sanctions.
The Nobel laureate said American economic sanctions were a useful tool for putting pressure on Myanmar's military government, but now the people need to consolidate democracy on their own.
"I do support the easing of sanctions," she said in remarks after a speech at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington on the opening day of a two-week tour of the United States.
Suu Kyi, who won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize for championing democracy in opposition to a military junta that held her under house arrest for years, began her 17-day tour with talks with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and a standing room only speech at the Washington think tank.
"We have crossed the first hurdle but there are many more hurdles to cross," she said in the speech, her first public appearance in the United States.
Clinton told the same event Suu Kyi's followers and the quasi-civilian government needed to work together to heal past wounds and "guard against backsliding because there are forces that would take the country in the wrong direction if given the chance."
Suu Kyi, whose last stay in the United States was in the 1970s as a United Nations employee, will visit the large emigre community from her country in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and make a series of public speeches from New York to California.
Suu Kyi's U.S. tour will coincide with a visit by Thein Sein, Myanmar's reformist president, who heads to New York on September 24 to address the U.N. General Assembly.
Thein Sein, a former junta general, was scheduled to meet U.S. officials on the sidelines of U.N. meetings and his aides said he would try to convey Myanmar's urgent need for the import ban and other American sanctions to be eased.
Suu Kyi's election to parliament in April helped to transform Myanmar's pariah image and convince the West to begin rolling back sanctions after a year of dramatic reforms, including the release of about 700 political prisoners in amnesties between May 2011 and July.
Suu Kyi, striking a professorial tone in her first U.S. speech, said the rapid normalization of U.S.-Myanmar ties over the past 18 months was "particularly illustrative of the dimensions of geopolitics and history."
Many people around the region are asking, she said, whether U.S. engagement with Myanmar "was aimed at containing the influence of China in Asia."
She said Myanmar's engagement with the United States did not imply any deterioration in its relationship with China or mean that Myanmar-U.S. ties "in any way can be seen as a hostile threat to China."
Before Suu Kyi arrived in the United States on Monday, Myanmar announced a pardon of more than 500 prisoners in an amnesty that included at least 80 political detainees, according to activists.
The announcement, seen as a step that could strengthen the former military state's growing bonds with Washington, did not make clear if any of the 514 were political prisoners, but two activist groups who monitor dissidents jailed in Myanmar said more than 80 were given presidential pardons.
The U.S. State Department reacted cautiously to news of the amnesty, repeating its call for the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners.
Clinton said on Tuesday Myanmar still "had a lot of work to do."
"Political prisoners remain in detention. Ongoing ethnic and sectarian violence continues to undermine progress toward national reconciliation, stability and lasting peace," said Clinton.
The U.S. Campaign for Burma, a Washington-based democracy advocacy group, said the United States was correct to retain sanctions for leverage and remove them only gradually amid ongoing war against ethnic minority groups in Myanmar.
"The fragility of the peace talks with various ethnic groups and the situation in western Burma remain serious issues that need more substantial progress before we believe any additional U.S. sanctions are lifted," said Jennifer Quigley, the group's advocacy director. (Additional reporting by Andrew Quinn; Editing by Doina Chiacu)