By Mary Hathaway
Four years after being awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, Myanmar democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was finally able to accept the honor in person today.
“The great honor that you have conferred on me will be a lasting memento of the steadfast support of the United States Congress for the democratic aspirations of my people,” she said in the Capitol’s rotunda.
Suu Kyi is celebrated for her defiant pursuit of democracy and human rights in Myanmar, also known as Burma. In 1989, Suu Kyi was put under house arrest by the Burmese government, where she spent 15 of the next 21 years. When Suu Kyi was originally awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2008, she was under house arrest, which makes her the first person ever to receive the award while incarcerated.
“From the depths of my heart, I thank you, the people of America, and you, their representatives, for keeping us in your hearts and minds during the dark years when freedom and justice seemed beyond our reach,” she added.
The ceremony brought out the House and Senate’s leadership, as well as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former First Lady Laura Bush, who has been an advocate for Burmese human rights. The leaders paid tribute to Suu Kyi for her brave work over the years.
“I might have hoped, but I would never have expected that one day I would have the honor of welcoming my personal hero Aung San Suu Kyi to the congress of the United States,” Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., said.
“The woman we honor today chose a far more difficult path,” said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell , R-Ky., “the path of Ghandi, the path of Dr. Martin Luther King … for the sake of future generations she would never know.”
Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, officially awarded Suu Kyi with the Congressional Gold Medal, and she was welcomed to the podium by a standing ovation.
“This is one of the most moving days of my life,” Suu Kyi said. “A house undivided. A house joined together to welcome a stranger from distant land.”
While there was mostly a serious and joyous tone to the room there was also laugher. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton noted the Parliament of Burma had been watching the old segments of ” The West Wing” to try and learn how to become a Democratic Parliament.
Since her release in November 2010, Suu Kyi has become a Myanmar opposition leader in parliament, and is still active in the human rights of all those in Burma.
“So as we honor her,” said Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, “a time that many of us feared that would never happen, it’s good to recognize that one phase of her work may be over, but another phase, equally important, is just beginning and that the United States will stand with her.”
Suu Kyi is on a 17-day trip to the United States. Tonight she will meet President Obama at the White House.