WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi met President Barack Obama at the White House and received the highest congressional award on Wednesday.
Suu Kyi, making a coast-to-coast U.S. tour, held private talks with Obama in the Oval Office after being feted by lawmakers in the ornate U.S. Capitol, where she was presented with the Congressional Gold Medal for her long fight for democracy in a country ruled by army generals since 1962.
“This is one of the most moving days of my life, to be here in a house undivided, a house joined together to welcome a stranger from a distant land,” she said.
“Among all these faces are some I saw while I was under house arrest, and some I saw after I was released from house arrest,” said Suu Kyi, acknowledging strong support from U.S. lawmakers during her 17 years of house arrest.
The Oval Office setting for the first meeting between the two Nobel Peace laureates afforded Suu Kyi’s visit some of the trappings normally reserved for visiting foreign presidents and prime ministers.
But the White House, apparently treading carefully lest they allow the Suu Kyi events upstage Myanmar’s government, kept the meeting low-key. News photographers were allowed in briefly but not television cameras or print reporters. Obama and Suu Kyi met for about half an hour.
Obama, seeking re-election in November, seized the chance to meet Suu Kyi on the second day of her U.S. tour. The encounter could help him highlight what many see as a foreign policy accomplishment of his administration in helping to push Myanmar’s generals onto the path of democratic change.
The president expressed his admiration for Suu Kyi’s courage and personal sacrifice in championing democracy and human rights over the years, the White House said in a statement after the meeting.
Obama welcomed the Asian nation’s democratic transition and the recent progress made by Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy Party and President Thein Sein, the White House said.
At her congressional medal ceremony, both Suu Kyi and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledged the presence in the audience of a minister representing Myanmar’s president and the country’s new ambassador in Washington.
“This task has been made possible by the reform measures instituted by President Thein Sein,” said Suu Kyi in her acceptance speech.
Earlier on Wednesday, the United States removed sanctions that blocked any U.S. assets of Thein Sein and the speaker of Myanmar’s lower house of parliament and that generally barred American companies from dealing with them.
Thein Sein and lower house speaker Shwe Mann, once members of the former military junta who have won international praise for driving reforms in the 18 months since the military ceded power to a quasi-civilian government, were both removed from the U.S. Treasury’s list of “specially designated nationals.”
Thein Sein will visit New York for the annual U.N. General Assembly next week, when he is expected to meet senior U.S. officials.
U.S. lawmakers and officials who turned out to honor Suu Kyi expressed amazement - some tearing up - that she had made the journey from house arrest to Washington.
“I might have hoped, but I’m not sure I 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,” said Republican Senator John McCain.
Clinton said she expected change to come in the country also known as Burma, but did not know how long it would take.
“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,” she said.
The solemn ceremony was sprinkled with lighter moments, as Clinton related a trip to Myanmar last year, where she quoted the speaker of the lower house of parliament as saying, “Help us learn how to be a democratic congress, a parliament.”
“He went on to tell me that they were trying to teach themselves by watching old segments of The West Wing,” Clinton said, referring to the fictional U.S. television series about presidential politics. “I said, ‘I think we can do better than that, Mr. Speaker.’”
Suu Kyi won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize for championing democracy in opposition to the military junta that held her under house arrest for years. Her last stay in the United States was in the 1970s as a United Nations employee.
Suu Kyi’s election to parliament in April helped to transform the pariah image of Myanmar and persuade the West to begin rolling back sanctions after a year of dramatic reforms, including the release of about 700 political prisoners in amnesties between May 2011 and July.
Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, early in his term with no concrete foreign policy successes on his record, leading critics to say he was rewarded mostly for eloquent speech-making.
Additional reporting by Paul Eckert, Arshad Mohammed, Andrew Quinn and Mark Felsenthal; editing by Mohammad Zargham