WASHINGTON — As President George W. Bush quietly returned to Washington today, he brought along a slew of global democracy activists known mostly for never being quiet.
Today’s line-up at the George W. Bush Presidential Center sponsored event, “A Celebration of Human Freedom,” included Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian activist living in Washington; Bob Fu, a native Chinese pastor; and Normando Hernandez, a former political prisoner in Cuba.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the democracy activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, joined the conference via Skype from her living room couch in Myanmar, formerly Burma.
“These are extraordinary times in the history of freedom,” Bush said. “In the Arab Spring, we have seen the broadest challenge to authoritarian rule since the collapse of Soviet communism. Great change has come to a region where many thought it impossible. The idea that Arab people are somehow content with oppression has been discredited forever.”
“America does not get to choose if a freedom revolution should begin or end in the Middle East, or elsewhere. It only gets to choose what side it is on,” he added.
Abdulhamid, founder of the Tharwa Foundation and one of the earliest dissident voices behind the Syrian uprising, introduced Bush today, emphasizing the importance of fearless activism.
“The price of activism could be the death of the human body. But the price of silence could result in the death of human spirit, a far greater price to pay,” Abdulhamid said.
“All of us here today join you in hoping and praying for the end of violence and the advance of freedom in Syria,” Bush told Abdulhamid as he took the stage.
When Suu Kyi appeared on the big screen above the stage, she too offered her support to Abdulhamid’s home country.
“I would like to say to the people of Syria, we are with you in your struggle for freedom,” she said.
Asked if she had a solution to the violence in Syria that has claimed more than 12,000 lives in the last 15 months, Suu Kyi replied, “If there was an easy answer, I think Syria would be at peace now.”
But Suu Kyi said she’s hopeful about peace abroad and at home.
Last month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the United States would begin to ease sanctions in Myanmar, and on Monday, Sen. John McCain advocated for the suspension of sanctions, echoing the recent move by the European Union.
“I am not against the suspension of sanctions, as long as the people of the United States feel that this is the right thing to do at the moment,” Suu Kyi said today.
“I do advocate caution, though,” she said. “I sometimes feel that people are too optimistic about what we are seeing in Burma. You have to remember that the change in Burma is not irreversible.”
And there is reason for optimism. Suu Kyi was sworn in on May 2 as a member of parliament and will soon make her first trip abroad in more than two decades, to London and then Oslo, Norway, to finally accept her 1991 Nobel Peace Prize.
In one final word, Suu Kyi offered advice to her fellow activists: “Persevere. You’ll get there in the end. Don’t lose hope. There are many people who are with you in mind and in spirit.”