On Wednesday, Nobel laureate and Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi was honored in Washington, D.C., with a Congressional Gold Medal for her nonviolent advocacy of democracy and basic human rights. Located in the Capitol building, the ceremony was held in front of an audience that included Democrats and Republicans. The tenacity with which Aung clung to the ideal of democracy even as her people suffer under an oppressive government is inspiring.
"It's almost too delicious to believe that you are here in the rotunda of our great Capitol, the centrepiece of our democracy, as an elected member of your parliament,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said with a smile. She was one of the many speakers who expressed admiration for Aung's courage and unwavering belief in establishing a democratic Burmese government at the expense of personal freedom. John McCain even choked up.
Aung San Suu Kyi's ability to leave Myanmar and to visit the United States reflects a nascent change in her country's political atmosphere. When Aung San Suu Kyi won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, she could not go to Oslo because she had been placed under house arrest by the military junta. Upon her release in November 2010, she again became a visible and popular advocate for democracy in Myanmar. Along with several members of her National League for Democracy party, she won a Parliament seat in an historic election in April. She has played a key role in re-establishing a diplomatic relationship with the United States and continues to be an important advocate for the lifting of U.S. economic sanctions on Myanmar.
Moreover, now that Aung possesses legitimate power in the government, she will become closer to realizing her goal of democracy by contributing to changes in the country's constitution. In an interview with Voice of America, she notes that these changes are precarious unless the military power completely divorces their influence from the civilian government.
Among the many problems facing her country's path toward reform, Aung realizes that in order for Myanmar to achieve democracy, there must be an end to the multi-ethnic conflict that has plagued her country for more than half a century. Thousands of Rohingya fleeing the ongoing conflict between the Rohingya Muslims and the Rakhine Buddhists have resulted in crowded refugee camps along the Thailand border as well as dozens of deaths from the journey across the Bay of Bengal, where many were turned back and set adrift on the open sea without their motors. Although there are more than 130 ethnic groups in Myanmar, many minority groups still do not have representation in local or national governments. For democracy to thrive, different voices must be heard and allowed to disagree without eliciting hatred and violence.
After her acceptance of the award, Aung San Suu Kyi gave an elegant and moving speech in which she said, "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. Yet I do not feel myself to be a stranger, for I see many familiar faces, and faces that are new to me but known through what they have done for my country and for our cause." Unfortunately, it seems to take a person who lives in a country that does not have the pillar of democracy to remind us that we have been divided by a political chauvinism that is detrimental to the mutual understanding required to solve our most pressing societal problems. As surely as Aung San Suu Kyi continues to believe in the United States as the symbol of democracy, let our country learn the power of unity from her.