LOUISVILLE, Ky (WHAS11) --- Eight months after their first meeting and 20 years after U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell was inspired by a newspaper story about Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burma pro-democracy activist appeared at the McConnell Center on the University of Louisville campus, Monday.
Suu Kyi, who only recently was allowed to leave her Southeast Asian country after two decades of imprisonment, spoke at 9 a.m. in Comstock Hall, UofL School of Music. Her talk is part of a distinguished speaker series offered by UofL’s McConnell Center.
Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest in 1989 after publicly speaking out against the shooting of thousands of people in Burma who took part in a nationwide pro-democracy strike. In 1990, the party she led won a landslide election, but a military regime ignored the results.
In April, after years of worldwide pressure, the Burmese (also known as Myanmar) government recognized Suu Kyi’s election to the country’s parliament. McConnell authored U.S. sanctions on Myanmar.
For years, McConnell championed Suu Kyi's cause, despite Burma barely registering in the United States' political consciousness.
NPR's Michele Kelemen reported on McConnell's link with Suu Kyi after he returned from their meeting:
"I read about it in the newspaper like everyone else," he said. "It was an interesting story: the uprising in '88, the election in 1990 in which Suu Kyi got 80 percent of the vote and their outrageous decision to put her under arrest for most of the next 20 years, the inability to go accept the Noble Peace price in '91.
"All of that I found a fascinating and interesting story. Even though I tought the chance of influencing events there were quite remote, I started taking about it."
Eventually he got the sanctions through congress and he said one day Suu Kyi managed to send him a hand-written note that he said he framed and hung in his office.
"To be perfectly candid with you, I wasn't all that confident things would ever change," he said.
During their first meeting, McConnell invited Suu Kyi to the United States and to Kentucky.
Before they parted, McConnell said she asked if she could give him a kiss.
"It was really kind of an emotional moment because I'm sure that I thought, and I don't know if she thought, that we were never going to meet," McConnell told the Courier-Journal's James Carroll, "It's an incredible day."
Last week, McConnell spoke at the Washington, D.C. ceremony at which Suu Kyi was presented with a Congressional Gold Medal, Congress’ highest civilian honor.
Remarks by McConnell
Congressional Gold Ceremony Honoring Daw Aung San Suu Kyi
Remarks of the Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell
U.S. Capitol Rotunda
“Mrs. Bush, Speaker Boehner, Leader Reid, Reverend clergy, colleagues, distinguished guests, and friends.
“Over the years, we’ve recognized many remarkable men and women in this place of honor — all of them extraordinary. It would be foolish to try to make comparisons among them.
“Yet for me at least, today’s ceremony is particularly meaningful.
“I first came to know of the woman we honor today more than two decades ago. I came across an article that told the story of her struggle, and from that moment on, I’ve felt compelled in my own small way to make that cause my own.
“It was impossible not to be moved by her quiet resolve, her hidden yet luminous heroism. And it’s impossible today, all these years later, not to be moved by the thought that this most unlikely of revolutionaries may yet witness the deepest longing of her heart: a representative, democratic system in which the people of Burma are able to enjoy their God-given rights to the full.
“It is in this hope that we stand today with the people of Burma and with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, knowing that whatever the future holds, she will fight, unflinchingly, to the end.
“Here in this place, surrounded by the statues of our own national heroes of independence and equality, we draw new inspiration from this courageous woman from a distant land.
“She reminds us that the freedoms we enjoy are not just our birthright as Americans. They are the aspiration of all men and women. And defending them will always require the kind of courage she has shown throughout her long struggle for the people of Burma.
“There are many examples of that courage, but I think my favorite took place on August 26, 1988. Suu Kyi was about to make her very public debut with a speech before more than half a million people at the Schwedagon Pagoda, and someone asked her if she wanted to wear a bullet-proof vest.
“’Why?,’ she answered, ‘If I was afraid of being killed, I would never speak out against the government.’
“It’s easy to throw flaming bottles from a passing car or from behind a mask. It’s easy to spray bullets from a tank at an unarmed mob. The woman we honor today chose a far more difficult path, the path of Gandhi, the path of Dr. Martin Luther King, the arduous path of idealism, peaceful resistance, civil disobedience; of voluntary renunciation for the sake of future generations she would never know.
“The path of hope.
“It was not the life she wanted, but it was, she knew, her calling. And she has been faithful.
“We are honored to stand with you today, my friend, and for the noble cause that you embody.”