Myanmar's democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi on Monday opened a sweeping and once-unimaginable tour of the United States, where she will enjoy a hero's welcome from Americans inspired by her story.
The Nobel Peace Prize winner arrived in Washington just as Myanmar released more political prisoners, in a new sign of her country's dramatic reforms ahead of a separate trip by President Thein Sein to the United States next week.
Suu Kyi, who spent most of the two decades until 2010 under house arrest, will be feted from Washington to university campuses as she holds nearly 100 events over 18 days in the country that has long rallied behind her cause.
The opposition leader and new member of parliament will meet Tuesday with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the next day will head to the Capitol to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, the top honor bestowed by Congress.
President Barack Obama is widely expected to take a break from his re-election campaign to see Suu Kyi, although the White House has not commented on his plans.
Representative Joe Crowley, a longtime advocate on human rights in Myanmar and a leader of the effort to award Suu Kyi the Congressional Gold Medal, said that lawmakers were "bursting" with excitement for her visit.
"In many respects, it's the culmination of an effort that we've been part of for some time now," Crowley told AFP.
"The notion to have her here in the US Capitol, in the Rotunda, receiving the highest award that Congress can give on the heels of her spending a decade and a half under house arrest is just remarkable," he said.
"It just reiterates again that by perseverance and fortitude, anything is possible," he said.
Crowley said, however, that Myanmar was "not where we want to be" on democracy and human rights. The United States has repeatedly voiced concern over the treatment of minority groups including Rohingya Muslims.
Amid a stream of bad news from the Middle East, the Obama administration has cautiously cast Myanmar as a success story. US officials opened talks with the then military junta in 2009 as part of Obama's policy of reaching out to unfriendly regimes.
In hopes of encouraging reform, Obama in July suspended sanctions to allow US investment in Myanmar, despite Suu Kyi's concerns about doing business with the state-owned oil and gas company which has been widely accused of labor violations.
As Suu Kyi was flying into Washington, Myanmar's state media announced the release of another 514 inmates. A spokesman for the democracy movement Generation 88 told AFP that at least 15 were political prisoners.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland withheld comment pending more details on the prisoner release.
Nuland said there was "obviously a lot more to be done" in Myanmar, which she said the United States would address both with Suu Kyi and Thein Sein, although she declined to say which US officials would meet with the president.
Experts from the Center for Strategic and International Studies said that Obama himself should meet Thein Sein along with Suu Kyi so as not to appear to slight the president and his "courageous role" in launching reforms.
"There is a delicate balance required to effectively nurture the reform process in Myanmar," experts from the think tank wrote in a report after a recent visit to the Southeast Asian nation.
Kurt Campbell, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs who led the initial outreach to Myanmar, said that the administration was "very supportive" of Thein Sein's efforts and his trip to New York.
"If you compare to where we were a year ago, a year and two months ago, it's inconceivable how much progress that we've made since then," he said.
"Now the key is to sustain it. Hopes have been raised and we can't let there be a gap between hope and the challenges that obviously exist on the ground," he said.
Suu Kyi is one of the rare figures who enjoys strong support in Washington across the political spectrum. Senator Mitch McConnell, a top rival of Obama who heads the Republicans in the Senate, has longstanding ties to Suu Kyi and arranged for her to speak next week in his home state of Kentucky.
The hectic schedule -- which will also include visits to New York, Boston, Indiana, San Francisco and Los Angeles -- has worried some of Suu Kyi's supporters. The 67-year-old fell ill in June during a punishing tour of Europe.
Suu Kyi last visited the United States before her party won 1990 elections, which led to her house arrest. She worked in New York at the United Nations headquarters from 1969 to 1971.