Madeleine Albright left that conference in Beijing taking with her a poster signed by all the Americans and a few others who we gave the opportunity to sign to take that poster to Burma to give to Aung San Suu Kyi, to let her know once again that there were many of us around the world supporting her in her cause, remembering her personally.
When I was a member of the Senate and privileged to vote for the bill that we now see come to fruition in 2008, I never imagined that a year later I would be Secretary of State. But I was so pleased to have the opportunity to work with my colleagues, my former colleagues, in thinking about a new approach that the United States might take to try to see if there were any way to help move a transition forward, not only in honor of and furtherance of Daw Suu Kyi’s life’s work, but for the people of Burma.
I reached out to Joe Crowley and Congressman Manzullo and my friends Dianne Feinstein, John McCain, and Mitch McConnell. I went to see Senator McConnell in his office. I said, “Mitch, what do you think about seeing whether there is any opening whatsoever?” And I was so pleased when he said, “Well, let’s give it a try. Let’s be careful. Let’s proceed judiciously.” On the way out of his office, he stopped and showed me a letter from Suu Kyi to him. We knew that at some point change would have to come, but whether it would be a year, a decade, or longer, no one could predict.
But very carefully, in close consultation with the Congress, we began sending Assistant Secretary Campbell and then now-Ambassador Derek Mitchell in the position created by the Congress of Special Envoy, listening, probing, seeing whether there was something happening. And slowly change started. And of course, when the house arrest was finally lifted and the voice of this remarkable woman could be heard more broadly, we knew that the United States had to be not only supporting the change, but carefully nurturing it to ensure that it did not end up being hijacked, detoured.
Today, we are joined by a representative from the President of Burma, and we welcome U Aung Min. We are joined by the new Ambassador from Burma, Than Swe. And we are joined not only by a fearless champion of human rights and democracy, but a member of parliament. It’s almost too delicious to believe, my friend, that you are here in the Rotunda of our great Capitol, the centerpiece of our democracy, as an elected member of your parliament – (applause) – and as, Leader Pelosi, the leader of the political opposition, the leader of a political party.
I am so deeply moved by what she has stood for and what she has represented, first and foremost for the people of her country, but for people everywhere who yearn for freedom, whose voices deserve to be heard. But I am also very impressed that she was not satisfied upon the release from house arrest to remain an advocate, a symbol, an icon. In many ways, that would have been the easiest path to take, because if anyone understands how difficult politics is anywhere in the world, it is all of us in this chamber today.
The to and fro of making decisions of compromise, of reaching agreement with people that you don’t agree with – and in her case, people who were her former jailers – is a great testament to her courage and fortitude and understanding of what Burma needs now.
Last December, I had the great honor of visiting with her in the house by the lake where she was confined for many years. As we walked around that house and through the rooms, I remembered another visit I had made years before with Nelson Mandela showing me his prison cell on Robben Island. These two political prisoners were separated by great distances, but they were both marked by uncommon grace, generosity of spirit, and unshakable will.
And they both understood something that I think we all have to grasp: the day they walked out of prison, the day the house arrest was ended, was not the end of the struggle. It was the beginning of a new phase. Overcoming the past, healing a wounded country, building a democracy, would require moving from icon to politician.
In a time when politics and politicians are sometimes the objects of criticism and even disdain, it is well for us to remember people fight and die for the right to exercise politics, to be part of a democracy, to make decisions peacefully, without resorting to the gun. That work of building democracy never ends, not here in the seat of the oldest democracy in the world, or in a country like Burma in its new capital of Nay Pyi Taw, where the speaker of the lower house where Suu Kyi now serves said to me, “Help us learn how to be a democratic congress, a parliament.” He went on to tell me that they were trying to teach themselves by watching old segments of the West Wing. (Laughter.) I said, “I think we can do better than that, Mr. Speaker.”
So as we honor her, a time that many of us feared would never happen, it’s good to recognize that one phase of her work may be over, but another phase, equally important, is just beginning. And that the United States will stand with her, with the President of Burma and those who are reformers in the executive branch and the legislative branch, with the activists, with civil society, as they fan the flickers of democratic progress and press forward with reform. And we wish them all Godspeed. (Applause.)