Updated at 9:00 p.m. EST on 2012-09-19
U.S. President Barack Obama met privately with Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi at the White House on Wednesday, just after American lawmakers presented her with the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest U.S. civilian award.
Obama welcomed the democracy campaigner to the Oval Office for historic talks that would have been unthinkable a few years ago while she was kept under house arrest by Burma’s military junta, which gave up power in March last year.
Aung San Suu Kyi, who has become a member of parliament since her release from house arrest in November 2010, is on a 17-day U.S. trip, her first to the country in 40 years.
The meeting between the two Nobel laureates was closed to the media, possibly as part of a move to avoid fueling any tensions with the Burmese government of President Thein Sein, who is spearheading reforms in the once-pariah state and is scheduled to visit the U.S. next week.
A White House statement issued after the talks said that Obama welcomed Burma’s democratic transition and the recent progress made by Aung San Suu Kyi in her efforts to work together with the reform-minded President Thein Sein.
Obama hoped the ongoing process of reconciliation and reform in Burma offers the people an "opportunity to take charge of their destiny and to shape a more peaceful, free, and prosperous future."
He expressed his admiration for Aung San Suu Kyi's "courage, determination and personal sacrifice" in championing democracy and human rights, saying the U.S. was determined to support efforts to promote political and economic reforms and "to ensure full protection of the fundamental rights of the Burmese people," according to the statement.
It is not immediately known whether Aung San Suu Kyi and Obama spoke about the possible lifting of more U.S. sanctions on Burma.
She had said on Tuesday that economic sanctions were a useful tool for putting pressure on the previous military government but that the people now needed to consolidate democracy without outside help.
"I do support the easing of sanctions, because I think that our people can start taking responsibility for their own destiny," she said.
‘Worth the wait’
Aung San Suu Kyi’s meeting with Obama came about an hour after she received the congressional medal in a grand ceremony in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol.
"This is one of the most moving days of my life," the beaming and emotional Aung San Suu Kyi said after receiving the award.
"This is a moment for which I have been waiting for many years. It is worth the years of waiting,” she said.
The 67-year-old was given the award for her decades-long "struggle promoting human rights and democracy" in Burma. She had spent most of the past two decades under house arrest until her release in 2010.
Aung San Suu Kyi thanked Americans for their support for Burma as the once-pariah state reforms its government.
"There will be difficulties in the way ahead, but I'm confident that we shall be able to overcome all obstacles with the help and support of our friends," she said.
“With this gold medal, the American people hang a lantern for her…. May it serve as a high and shining beacon of our commitment to a future of good health and bright victories,” House Speaker John Boehner said while presenting her with the award.
In a show of support from Burma’s government, Thein Sein’s key aide Aung Min and Naypyidaw’s ambassador to the U.S. Than Swe attended the ceremony.
American lawmakers from both sides of the aisle set aside party differences to honor Aung San Suu Kyi for her long struggle against military rule.
Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein hailed her as a “champion” while Republican Senator John McCain called her his “personal hero."
“It’s been a long time coming. We’re honored to have this hero with us today, and delighted to award her our nation’s highest civilian honor,” said senior Republican Senator Mitch McConnell, who was among the key architects of the bill introduced in Congress for the democracy champion to get the award.
Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the medal in absentia in 2008 but could not collect it because she was kept under house arrest then.
“When we passed the Gold Medal resolution in 2008, we thought it would be awarded in absentia. But Daw Aung San Suu Kyi knew better,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said.
The award came a day after Aung San Suu Kyi, who arrived in Washington on Monday, held talks with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the State Department.
Aung San Suu Kyi's 17-day trip coincides with a visit by Thein Sein, who will address the U.N. General Assembly in New York next week.
She is scheduled to attend a high-level meeting organized by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon a day before Thein Sein’s address, reports have said.
Reported by Rachel Vandenbrink.