Suu Kyi meets Obama, receives medal from Congress
Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi met US President Barack Obama at the White House and received the highest congressional award on Wednesday.
Suu Kyi, making a coast-to-coast US tour, held private talks with Obama in the Oval Office after being feted by lawmakers in the ornate US Capitol, where she was presented with the Congressional Gold Medal for her long fight for democracy in a country ruled by army generals since 1962.
“This is one of the most moving days of my life, to be here in a house undivided, a house joined together to welcome a stranger from a distant land,” she said.
“Among all these faces are some I saw while I was under house arrest, and some I saw after I was released from house arrest,” said Suu Kyi, acknowledging strong support from US lawmakers during her 17 years of house arrest.
The Oval Office setting for the first meeting between the two Nobel Peace laureates afforded Suu Kyi’s visit some of the trappings normally reserved for visiting foreign presidents and prime ministers.
But the White House, apparently treading carefully lest they allow the Suu Kyi events upstage Myanmar’s government, kept the meeting low-key. News photographers were allowed in briefly but not television cameras or print reporters. Obama and Suu Kyi met for about half an hour.
Obama, seeking re-election in November, seized the chance to meet Suu Kyi on the second day of her US tour. The encounter could help him highlight what many see as a foreign policy accomplishment of his administration in helping to push Myanmar’s generals onto the path of democratic change.
At her congressional medal ceremony, both Suu Kyi and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledged the presence in the audience of a minister representing Myanmar President Thein Sein and the country’s new ambassador in Washington.
“This task has been made possible by the reform measures instituted by President Thein Sein,” said Suu Kyi in her acceptance speech.
Earlier on Wednesday, the United States removed sanctions that blocked any US assets of Thein Sein and the speaker of Myanmar’s lower house of parliament and that generally barred American companies from dealing with them.
Thein Sein and lower house speaker Shwe Mann, once members of the former military junta who have won international praise for driving reforms in the 18 months since the military ceded power to a quasi-civilian government, were both removed from the US Treasury’s list of “specially designated nationals”.
Thein Sein will visit New York for the annual UN General Assembly next week, when he is expected to meet senior US officials.
US lawmakers and officials who turned out to honour Suu Kyi expressed amazement – some tearing up – that she had made the journey from house arrest to Washington.
“I might have hoped, but I’m not sure I expected, that one day I would have the honour of welcoming my personal hero, Aung San Suu Kyi, to the Congress of the United States,” said Republican Senator John McCain.
Clinton said she expected change to come in the country also known as Burma, but did not know how long it would take.
“It’s almost too delicious to believe, my friend, that you are here in the rotunda of our great capitol, the centrepiece of our democracy as an elected member of your parliament,” she said.
The solemn ceremony was sprinkled with lighter moments, as Clinton related a trip to Myanmar last year, where she quoted the speaker of the lower house of parliament as saying: “Help us learn how to be a democratic congress, a parliament.”
“He went on to tell me that they were trying to teach themselves by watching old segments of The West Wing,” Clinton said, referring to the fictional US television series about presidential politics. “I said, ‘I think we can do better than that, Mr Speaker.’”
Suu Kyi won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize for championing democracy in opposition to the military junta that held her under house arrest for years. Her last stay in the United States was in the 1970s as a United Nations employee.
Suu Kyi’s election to parliament in April helped to transform the pariah image of Myanmar and persuade 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 last year and July.
Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, early in his term with no concrete foreign policy successes on his record, leading critics to say he was rewarded mostly for eloquent speech-making.