A pair of Nobel Peace Prize winners met Wednesday in the Oval Office.
Aung San Suu Kyi, the internationally revered Myanmar opposition leader who endured decades of house arrest quietly defying a brutal military regime, met privately with President Barack Obama. The encounter came only hours after Ms. Suu Kyi received a Congressional Gold Medal – the highest honour U.S. legislators can bestow – at an emotional ceremony in the Capitol rotunda.
After being celebrated by a bipartisan array of American political notables, Ms. Suu Kyi saved her highest praise for Tom Lantos, the Holocaust survivor and long-serving Californian congressman who tirelessly championed her cause – and that of many others facing repressive regimes – until his death in 2008.
“I’m sorry I arrived too late to be able to meet him,” Ms. Suu Kyi, 67, told the packed Capitol on a brilliantly sunny early autumn day. She went on to thank the United States for steadfast support “during the dark years when freedom and justice seemed to be beyond our reach.”
Some, extolling her bravery, choked up.
“They did all they could to break her,” said Senator John McCain, the former naval aviator and a victim of torture and imprisonment after being shot down over Vietnam. With his voice cracking, he called Ms. Suu Kyi his “personal hero,” adding, “Aung San Suu Kyi didn’t scare a damn.”
On a day filled with celebration and emotion, former first lady Laura Bush said Myanmar now needs Ms. Suu Kyi’s “wisdom and leadership” as much as it needed her unwavering resistance in the past.
It was a theme repeated in other speeches, alongside unabashed adoration. “It’s almost too delicious to believe, my friend, that you are here in the rotunda of our great Capitol ... as an elected member of your parliament … the leader of the political opposition, the leader of a political party,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Ms. Suu Kyi’s 17-day U.S. tour includes high-visibility visits to New York, Yale and Harvard universities, San Francisco and Los Angeles. It also overlaps with the arrival – for a United Nations General Assembly speech next week – of Myanmar’s President Thein Sein.
The fine line between dealing with Myanmar’s government and championing its far-more-famous opposition leader was evident in advance of the White House meeting between Ms. Suu Kyi and Mr. Obama. “A great deal has been transpiring in Myanmar, Burma,” Jay Carney, the President’s spokesman, said. “We continue to work with President Thein Sein and the government there, as well as others, to help the cause of reform.”
The meeting, unlike tête-à-têtes with visiting leaders in the Oval Office, was private with no cameras allowed.
Earlier Wednesday, the Obama administration announced that Thein Sein and Thura Shwe Mann, the powerful Speaker of the military-dominated Myanmar legislature, had been taken off the U.S. blacklist of sanctioned individuals.
At the Capitol ceremony, both Ms. Suu Kyi and Ms. Clinton made a point of acknowledging representatives of the Myanmar government in attendance.
“I think the desire for reform of President Thein Sein is very genuine,” Ms. Suu Kyi said soon after arriving in Washington. She also said she backed “the easing of sanctions, because I think that our people can start taking responsibility for their own destiny.”
Myanmar-watchers worry that the outpouring of adoration across America for Ms. Suu Kyi may complicate the reform process.
Thein Sein deserves credit for his “forward-looking leadership,” said Lex Rieffel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. “One can only hope that he will be received well enough so that his remarkable collaboration with Suu Kyi will actually be strengthened.”