I met Daw Aung San Suu Kyi twice. The first time was in the wooden two-story, headquarters of her party, the National League for Democracy, in Rangoon. The year was 1999 and though she had already captured the imagination of the world, many experts questioned her ability to deliver any real successes to Burma's people. However, groups of loyal supporters, in Asia, the U.S., and the world over, kept the faith.
When I met her again last month, in the beautiful Los Angeles home of Hollywood heavy-hitter Jimmy Miller, the world was celebrating the real and admirable progress that her movement has made. Thirteen years later, she was the same person; quiet, dignified, strong, and focused. And I left the second meetings with the same feeling of inspiration that I had after the first.
Poet, John Milton once wrote, "They also serve who only stand and wait." This she did, imprisoned in her own house for roughly 18 years, her defiance became a global symbol of resistance to authoritarian rule. With quite dignity, she has moved the mountain. And the symbolism of her victory runs deeper when you realize she achieved it all from the home of her father, Burma's liberation hero, General Aung San. World interest has only grown with last year's parliamentary elections and the government's loosening of restrictions on free speech.
Just yesterday, President Obama became the first sitting president to visit Burma; a trip that was certainly warranted, to a county that was diplomatically isolated for much of the latter half of the 20th century. The trip was a great showing of friendship with Obama being gracious and kind, standing on the podium alongside Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, he promised to remain loyal to those who struggle in Burma. The bond between Hillary Clinton and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was clear, as they both used their wits to make this moment happen. The Secretary had said years before in China that "women's rights are human rights." And yesterday's historic meeting between the two powerful female leaders, struck me as a significant realization of those words. And the warmth between the leaders is understandable give that American support played a small, but significant, role in this victory.
In the U.S. credit should be given where credit is due. In a too rare example of leaders actually leading, Clinton, the Bushes, and Obama have all stood firmly behind Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's movement for decency and fairness in Burma. These presidents knew, and could pronounce, her name, and entertained all of us working on this side of the struggle with visits to the White House, Senate and House. Mitch O'Connell, Dianne Feinstein, and John McCain were outstanding in their efforts to support the sanctions. Taking their cues from Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, U.S. leaders they tightened the sanctions during Burma's darkest days, and have moved to loosen them in response to her recent calls.
Unfortunately, today, some of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's longest supporters seem unable to adjust their stances for the changing times. As President Obama's plane was landing in Burma, critics started with a chorus of "too soon." Some were as bold as to say that the president should not visit countries that hold political prisoners, a statement that I'm sure Leonard Peltier and an unknown number of other political prisoners in the United States would be surprised to hear.
Now that the democracy icon is free from house arrest, and her party is actively contesting seats in parliament, her supporters in the West should grant her the freedom to lead. There is still a long and rough road ahead as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her party work toward creating a free and democratic society in Burma. Her efforts are going to need every bit as much support as they did when the party was banned.
Atrocities persist in Burma. The oppression of the Muslim Rohingya people is immense, and Obama was right to speak against it in no uncertain terms. This is an issue that Daw Aung Suu Kyi could take a cue from the president on, having been too quiet herself. Ethnic groups along the borders still struggle with Burmese military occupations of their land, and there are hundreds more political prisoners who need to be freed. These issues, however, should not be an excuse for rights groups to scoff at real progress.
My view is this: Once Daw Aung San Suu Kyi shook hands with the military, light arrived in a dark place and she still remains a beacon of hope for the Burmese people. We, who participate in this movement from the United States, need to listen to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Not as a personality but as the leader followed by a real base of the democratic forces in Burma. As democracy and decency and fairness spreads throughout the land of Burma, there will be time for arguments, clarifications, and dissent. For now, let us stick with the Mandela of Asia whose name everyone now knows. That too is an accomplishment for us Americans.