President Obama on Wednesday met with Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who earlier was awarded Congress’ highest honor at a ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda that brought together Senate and House leaders from both sides of the political aisle as well as two former first ladies.
Mrs. Suu Kyi, a former political prisoner under Myanmar’s former military government, said the receiving the Congressional Gold Medal was “one of the most moving days” of her life.
Mr. Obama and Mrs. Suu Kyi, both Nobel Peace Prize winners, later met in the Oval Office.
Over the years, Republicans and Democrats have worked together to champion Mrs. Suu Kyi’s cause of promoting democracy in the Southeast Asian nation, formerly known as Burma.
“It’s almost too delicious to believe, my friend, that you are here in the Rotunda of our great Capitol, the centerpiece of our democracy, as an elected member of your parliament and … the leader of the political opposition, the leader of a political party,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said turning to Mrs. Suu Kyi.
“The United States will stand with her, with the president of Burma and those who are reformers in the executive branch and the legislative branch, with the activists, with civil society, as they fan the flickers of democratic progress and press forward with reform,” she added.
Mrs. Suu Kyi struck an optimistic note saying Myanmar President Thein Sein, a retired general who has spearheaded reforms in his country, is committed to change.
“There will be difficulties on the way ahead, but I am confident we will be able to overcome all obstacles with the help and support of our friends,” she said.
The Obama administration is walking a diplomatic tightrope to ensure Mrs. Suu Kyi’s visit does not upstage a visit to the United States next week by Thein Sein, who will attend the U.N. General Assembly session and meet Mrs. Clinton in New York next week.
Mrs. Suu Kyi was originally awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in absentia in 2008 when Myanmar’s military junta had her under house arrest. She was released in November of 2010 after spending 15 of the past 20 years in prison or under house arrest.
In a sign of the changing times, Thein Sein’s top aide, Aung Min, and Myanmar’s new ambassador to the United States, Than Shwe, attended the medal ceremony.
The ceremony was a rare bipartisan affair that included House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican; Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat; Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Republican Kentucky; House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat; Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican; Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat; Mrs. Clinton and another former first lady, Laura Bush.
Rep. Joseph Crowley, New York Democrat, and Rep. Donald A. Manzullo, Illinois Republican, co-sponsors of legislation that awarded Mrs. Suu Kyi the Congressional Gold Medal in 2008, were also present.
Mrs. Pelosi said the award was “a sign of the bond between [Mrs. Suu Kyi] and the United States.”
U.S. relations with Myanmar have thawed over the past year as the military-backed government has taken steps toward reform. The government has released hundreds of political prisoners, legalized opposition political parties, eased restrictions on the press and enacted laws to strengthen workers’ rights.
Obama administration officials and lawmakers, however, remain cautious.
“The tides of progress can reverse just as easily as they flow if we do not remain vigilant and demand further progress,” said Mr. Crowley.
Mrs. Bush applauded Mrs. Suu Kyi’s resolve for standing up to one of the most repressive regimes on earth. Myanmar now needs Mrs. Suu Kyi’s leadership, she said.
Mr. McConnell, who first heard of Mrs. Suu Kyi and her cause more than two decades ago, said he felt “compelled in my own small way to make that cause my own.”
Mrs. Suu Kyi, who arrived in Washington on Monday on her first trip to the United States in four decades, has spoken in support of easing U.S. sanctions on Myanmar.
The Treasury on Wednesday lifted sanctions on Thein Sein and parliament Speaker Thura Shwe Mann.
In Congress, lawmakers were expected to vote on legislation that would allow the United States to support loans from international financial agencies to Myanmar.
The Obama administration is also considering easing a ban on imports from Myanmar.
Myanmar activists say lifting all sanctions would be a mistake because the U.S. would loose a tool to press the government on reforms.
“The U.S. government should not use [Mrs. Suu Kyi’s] opinions to justify lifting sanctions,” said Aung Din, executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma and a former political prisoner. “The United States must make its own decision based on the situation on the ground.
“Once you lift everything, how will you put pressure on the regime for reform?” he asked.
Hkun Htun Oo, a pro-democracy activist and chairman of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy who spent more than six years as a prisoner of conscience until his release in January, criticized Mrs. Suu Kyi’s support for easing sanctions.
“First she was the person who opted for these sanctions, and now she’s trying to loosen them,” he said. “The trust in her has gone down.”