WASHINGTON – Myanmar democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi meets Wednesday afternoon with President Barack Obama and will be presented with Congress’ highest award, signs of Washington’s deep admiration for one of the world’s most famous political dissidents.
A senior administration official said Obama will meet privately with Suu Kyi at the White House before the Congressional ceremony at 3 p.m.
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 the country also known as Burma.
The official, who requested anonymity in order to discuss the meeting before it was announced publicly, said there would be no news 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 U.N. General Assembly in New York next week.
Thein Sein is a member of Myanmar’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 cooperates with Thein Sein.
As a result, the U.S. normalized diplomatic relations with Myanmar 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 Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Tuesday, saying Myanmar 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 Myanmar, which still faces serious human rights issues. Clinton also expressed concern Tuesday that Myanmar retains some military contacts with North Korea.
The ceremonial highlight of Suu Kyi’s visit will be Wednesday’s presentation in the Capitol Rotunda of the Congressional Gold Medal that she was awarded in absentia in 2008 when she was under house arrest. She will also meet with Senate and House leaders. Clinton will attend the medal ceremony.
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 Myanmar 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 Myanmar for its shift from military rule. Congress in August renewed the import ban, but Obama could seek to waive its provisions.