We finally know what it takes to make our fractious, divided, acrimonious Congress to act like grown ups and get behind one idea – a small, delicate, quietly dignified Burmese woman with a big reputation for being a hard case.
Aung San Suu Kyi is spending seventeen days in the United States and today went to the Capital to receive the Congressional Gold Medal that was awarded to her in 2008. Like her Nobel Peace Prize, Madame Suu Kyi was unable to personally accept her Gold Medal four years ago. She was still under house arrest back then for the crime of leading an opposition party to the military junta that ruled her country for two-thirds of her lifetime.
Beneath the Capitol dome, in the Statuary Hall honoring our past presidents, Madame Suu Kyi received the award surrounded by the leaders of the House and Senate, and in the presence of her friend, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Previous recipients of the Medal include the Dalai Lama and Pope John Paul II.
Madame Suu Kyi called it “one of the most moving days of my life,” to be honored “in a house undivided, a house joined together to welcome a stranger from a distant land. From the depths of my heart I thank you, the people of America.” Secretary Clinton gushed, “It’s almost too delicious to believe, my friend, that you are in the Rotunda of our Capitol, the centerpiece of our democracy as an elected member of parliament.”
Members of Congress were falling all over each other to talk about how they worked in unity on behalf of Madame Suu Kyi and for her cause. She is highly respected in our halls of government. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid not only praised Madame Suu Kyi, he praised Minority Leader Mitch McConnell for the work he has done to help Madame Suu Kyi for twenty years. McConnell compared her to Martin Luther King and Mohandas Mahatma Gandhi, saying, “It was impossible not to be moved by her quiet resolve, her hidden yet luminous heroism.” Senator John McCain called her his hero. Former First Lady Laura Bush also spoke, noting that there is a spirit of hope in Myanmar that is a tribute to Madame Suu Kyi, and calling her an “immoveable object” in her opposition to dictatorship and repression.
Quietly, in the background, a couple of small but important things were happening. A senior aide to Myanmar’s President Thein Sein was present for the ceremony and the Treasury Department announced that Sein had been removed from the individual sanctions list.
The United States has normalized diplomatic relations with Myanmar since Madame Suu Kyi’s parliamentary victory in April and American companies can now invest in Myanmar. There are some sanctions remaining, including a ban on imports, that the administration is planning to phase out.
Myanmar still faces some major human rights difficulties, specifically with regards to some of the ethnic tribes who live far from the urbanized areas of Myanmar. There is no hard and fast timeline for lifting the sanctions, and Secretary Clinton has made it clear that America is not pleased with Myanmar’s continuing military contacts with North Korea and will minutely watch all the progress in reforming the country.
Afterwards, Madame Suu Kyi met privately with President Obama at the White House. There was no formal statement from either of them after the meeting, but they appeared relaxed and congenial. Myanmar’s President Thein Sein is arriving in the United States himself next week for the United Nations General Assembly annual gathering of heads of states. Keeping the meeting with Madame Suu Kyi was intended to show respect for Sein, not overshadowing his first appearance at the U. N. as a freely elected civilian leader. He will be arriving on Tuesday, September 25, the same day that President Obama is scheduled to address the General Assembly. Thein Sein last traveled to the United Nations in 2009 while serving as the Prime Minister for the military regime. He is scheduled to address the General Assembly on Thursday, September 27. In preparation for Sein’s visit, the President ordered the immediate lifting of a sanction that would have restricted Sein’s visit to the United Nations. If he wished, he could travel outside of New York during this visit. While no formal announcement has been made concerning a meeting between the two presidents, it is worth noting that Sein is arriving two full days before his speech, arriving while our campaigning President is still in New York. (Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, conversely, refused to arrive early and expected President Obama to take time out from the campaign to be harangued by Bibi over Iran.) Even a short sidebar meeting between the presidents would be historic and a way to honor the manner in which Sein has been responsible for much of what has changed in Myanmar.