Lawmakers united by their respect of Myanmar democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Wednesday presented her with Congress’ highest civilian honor in a ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda, ahead of a meeting with President Barack Obama.
Suu Kyi described it as “one of the most moving days of my life.”
She was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2008 while under a 15-year house arrest for her peaceful struggle against military rule.
Her long-awaited visit to America finally provided an opportunity for her to receive the honor in person in Congress’ most majestic setting, beneath the dome of the Capitol and ringed by marble statues of former presidents.
The 67-year-old Nobel laureate said it was worth the years of waiting, being honored “in a house undivided, a house joined together to welcome a stranger from a distant land.”
Previous recipients of the medal include George Washington, Tibetan Buddhist leader the Dalai Lama and Pope John Paul II.
She then met privately at the White House with Obama, another winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. They appeared relaxed and were smiling as they talked in the Oval Office. Neither made formal comments to the photographers gathered to briefly witness the meeting.
Obama “expressed his admiration for her courage, determination and personal sacrifice in championing democracy and human rights over the years,” according to a statement from the White House.
The White House said the president “reaffirmed the determination of the United States to support their sustained efforts to promote political and economic reforms and to ensure full protection of the fundamental rights of the Burmese people.”
The low-key nature of the meeting appeared to reflect concerns that Suu Kyi’s Washington visit could overshadow Myanmar’s reformist president Thein Sein, who attends the U.N. General Assembly in New York next week, and still faces opposition within Myanmar’s military to political reform.
At the medal ceremony, House and Senate leaders joined Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in paying tribute to Suu Kyi. Speaker after speaker at the medal ceremony marveled that this was moment they thought they would never see: Suu Kyi before them, not only free but herself now a lawmaker.
“It’s almost too delicious to believe, my friend,” said Clinton, “that you are in the Rotunda of our Capitol, the centerpiece of our democracy as an elected member of parliament.”
Buddhist monks in saffron robes and women in traditional Burmese dresses crammed into the venue alongside members of Congress, who set aside the intense rivalries ahead of the Nov. 6 election.
Lawmakers talked about years of working together across party lines on the behalf of Suu Kyi’s democracy movement. When sanctions against the Myanmar junta were imposed, and over the past year when they have been suspended, Democrats and Republicans alike have set aside their increasingly bitter differences to pass and renew legislation annually.
That’s due in large part to their respect for Suu Kyi. Lawmakers who have spoken or met with her, and even those who haven’t, speak of her in reverential terms. Her photo adorns some office walls in Congress and her views have been critical in shaping U.S. policy toward the country also known as Burma.
At Wednesday’s emotional ceremony, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., lavished praise on a man who is usually his adversary, Republican leader Mitch McConnell, for long being at the forefront of efforts to help Suu Kyi for two decades.
McConnell compared Suu Kyi’s path of peaceful resistance to Martin Luther King and Indian independence leader Mohandas Gandhi. “It was impossible not to be moved by her quiet resolve, her hidden yet luminous heroism,” the Kentucky senator said.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., often called a hero for the years he endured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, said Suu Kyi was his hero.
Former first lady Laura Bush said the hope that now grows in Myanmar was a tribute to Suu Kyi. She said the former military regime had encountered an “immoveable object” in the opposition leader and its legitimacy broke against her character.
While speakers paid tribute to Suu Kyi’s resolve in the face of oppression, a spirit of reconciliation in Myanmar also pervaded the ceremony – recognition of its recent dramatic political changes after five ruinous and bloody decades of authoritarian rule.
A key aide to Thein Sein attended the ceremony, which Suu Kyi welcomed. The Treasury also announced it was taking Thein Sein off its list of individuals sanctioned from doing business or owning property in America.
Since Suu Kyi won a parliamentary seat in April, the U.S. has normalized diplomatic relations with Myanmar and allowed U.S. companies to start investing there again. The administration is now considering easing the main plank of its remaining sanctions, a ban on imports.
Suu Kyi voiced support for that step Tuesday, saying Myanmar should not depend on the U.S. to keep up its momentum for democracy. Some of her supporters, however, oppose it, saying reforms have not taken root and Washington will lose leverage with Myanmar, which still faces serious human rights issues. Clinton also expressed concern Tuesday that Myanmar retains some military contacts with North Korea.