As her nation slowly emerges from five decades of military rule, Nobel Peace Prize-winning democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi thanked Americans for their "enormous fund of good will" but also said the Burmese people must seek democratic reform on their own terms.
Suu Kyi told a Bay Area audience on Friday that she was "touched but also worried by the number of people who want to rush into Burma" to help as the country, now known as Myanmar, sheds its repressive past and opens to more foreign investment.
"I would like you to help with caution, with intelligence and with awareness that help given in the wrong way can lead to negative results," said the 67-year-old former political prisoner who was elected this year to a seat in the Myanmar Parliament.
The Burmese opposition leader landed in San Francisco on Friday and gave her first remarks to a private gathering at the international headquarters of The Asia Foundation, an aid group that funds development and civil society projects.
Freed in 2010 after 15 years under house arrest, Suu Kyi spoke candidly about Myanmar's slow steps toward reforming its government, emphasizing that she cared less about speed than about getting it right.
"Our people at the local level do not feel much freer now than they did two years ago," she said. "Reforms must be felt, or they are not satisfactory."
She said a failed education system has left "lost generations" of people under the age of
"Ultimately it is the people who must decide what they want and how they are going to obtain it," she said, noting that democratic governance differs from country to country.
She spoke of the need for negotiation, pragmatism and compromise, arguing that any hope of "nonviolent, peaceful" reform still needs the "willing consent" of the powerful military, which holds many seats in the new government.
"They are in a position to take over all powers of governance anytime they think it is necessary," she said.
The Oxford-educated daughter of Burma's founding father downplayed the reverence and praise with which many have greeted her during her two-week tour of the United States, her first visit to the country since she worked in New York City as a young diplomat from the late 1960s until 1971.
She hinted she might run for president of Myanmar. After riding the wave of a 1988 democratic uprising, Suu Kyi overwhelmingly won a national election in 1990 but military rulers rejected the results.
"I was a politician before I became a so-called democracy icon," she said Friday, drawing laughter.
Later on Friday, Suu Kyi moved to another downtown location to attend the first San Francisco Freedom Forum, which was recognizing the Burmese leader and other global democracy activists and inviting them to share their ideas.
On Saturday morning, she is addressing thousands at a town hall-style meeting at the University of San Francisco. Most of those attending are members of the Bay Area's Burmese American community, the nation's largest.