Burma's democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been honoured with U.S. Congress' highest award, is expected to meet Wednesday with President Barack Obama — both signs of Washington's deep admiration for one of the world's most famous political dissidents.
The Nobel laureate is on a 17-day trip to the U.S. She spent 15 years under house arrest for opposing military rule in her country, also known as Myanmar.
The ceremonial highlight of Suu Kyi's visit was Wednesday's presentation in the Capitol Rotunda of the Congressional Gold Medal that she was awarded in absentia in 2008 when she was still under house arrest.
"The great honour that you have conferred on me is a lasting memento of the steadfast support in the U.S. Congress for the democratic aspiration of my people," said Suu Kyi, accepting the medal. "From the depths of my heart, I thank you ... for keeping us in your hearts and minds during the dark years when freedom and justice seemed far beyond our reach."
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said she was "deeply moved" by Suu Kyi, and commended her on not simply remaining an icon of democracy, but also becoming a politician as well.
"It's almost too delicious to believe, my friend, that you are here in the rotunda of our great capital, the centrepiece of our democracy, as an elected member of your parliament," Clinton said.
Politicians from both the Democratic and Republican parties spoke at the ceremony honouring Suu Kyi, including former first lady Laura Bush, and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.
"It's impossible not to be moved by her quiet resolve ... she reminds us that the freedoms we enjoy are not just our birthright as Americans," said McConnell. "They are the inspiration for all men and women, and defending them will always require the courage she has shown in her long and difficult struggle for the people of Burma."
Burmese leader to meet privately with U.S. president
Suu Kyi's cause is one that Democrats and Republicans in an increasingly divided Washington have united in championing over the years, and several lawmakers who have advocated sanctions have visited Burma over the past year to consult with her on the shift in U.S. policy.
Despite bitter political divisions, both parties in Congress have broadly supported the administration's steps to reward Burma for its shift from military rule. Congress in August renewed the import ban, but Obama could seek to waive its provisions.
Obama did not attend the ceremony, but was expected to meet privately with Suu Kyi at the White House, a senior administration official said.
The official, who requested anonymity in order to discuss the meeting before it was announced publicly, said there would be no press coverage because Suu Kyi is not a head of state. That also likely reflects concerns that her Washington visit could overshadow the country's reformist President Thein Sein, who attends the annual gathering of world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly in New York next week.
Thein Sein is a member of Burma's former ruling junta who has led the political opening over the past two years that was heralded by Suu Kyi's release in late 2010. Suu Kyi has since been elected to parliament and co-operates with Thein Sein.
As a result, the U.S. normalized diplomatic relations with Burma and in July 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 after she met Clinton on Tuesday, saying Burma 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 Burma which still faces serious human rights issues. Clinton also expressed concern Tuesday that Burma retains some military contacts with North Korea.