Former political prisoner and human rights champion Aung San Suu Kyi will belatedly receive the 2008 Congressional Gold Medal at a ceremony this afternoon in the U.S. Capitol, said a pleased U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), a leading human rights lawmaker in the U.S. Congress who for years pleaded her cause on the House floor and at human rights hearings.
"After decades of advocating Ms. Suu Kyi's cause through hearings that I have chaired on human rights abuses in Burma and co-sponsoring the legislation awarding her the Congressional Gold Medal, it will be an outstanding privilege finally to recognize her extraordinary courage and perseverance in person," said Smith, a senior member of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee and executive member of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission.
Ms. Suu Kyi has been a peaceful champion for human rights and democracy in Burma. She was detained three times for a total of over 15 years, most of it under house arrest. Suu Kyi was last released on November 13, 2010. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2008. She was unable to receive the medal due to her being under house arrest. The Congressional Gold Medal is the United State's highest civilian award, and was bestowed on Suu Kyi "in recognition of her courageous and unwavering commitment to peace, nonviolence, human rights, and democracy in Burma."
Despite Suu Kyi's 2010 release and subsequent election to the Burmese parliament, as well as other more recent signs of improved respect for human rights, Smith cautioned against premature conclusions that the Burmese are a free people.
In an international incident in 1998, Smith intervened on behalf of his constituent, Michelle Keegan, of Hamilton, N.J. Though denied a visa to enter Burma (officially known as Myanmar), he worked to help successfully secure the freedom of Keegan, then 19 and a college student, and other American students and activists who had been arrested and convicted for handing out pro-democracy literature.
"Anyone with more than a short-term memory of Burma's history should be cautious and even highly skeptical about the depth and duration of these human rights improvements," Smith said. "The respect for human rights must extend to all the people of Burma -- ethnic and religious minorities included." Human rights groups continue to report serious human rights violations in Rakhine and Karen States, including the persecution of Rohingya Muslims and serious abuses by the Burmese army against the Karen people and their communities.
In addition, despite the release of a total of nearly 500 political prisoners during the past year, an undetermined number -- probably hundreds of political prisoners -- reportedly remain incarcerated. Released political prisoners claim that they are being denied passports to travel abroad and permission to return to their university studies. And as recently as early August, the government suspended publication of a prominent Yangon-based newsweekly for violating censorship rules.
"Restrained improvements in human rights by the Burmese Government should be met with equally restrained improvements in U.S. bilateral relations and international trade concessions," Smith concluded. "Ms. Suu Kyi's presence with us at the Capitol today is a bright beacon of hope, but Burma still has a long journey to achieve the peace, human rights and democracy to which all Burmese aspire."
Smith (NJ-04) had spoken of the plight of Suu Kyi, 67, from the floor of the House of Representatives on a number of occasions. As recently as September 2010, Smith introduced a House resolution, H.Res. 1710, which criticizes the many human rights abuses of the military regime, and specifically cites Suu Kyi's imprisonment. Her release came in the wake of recent elections in the Asian nation which are generally considered to be rigged in support of the ruling military. She was also held in house arrest from 1989 to 1995, and from 2000-2002.