This paying of respect to the Nobel laureate by the upstart dissidents was a symbolic footnote to a Thursday morning town-hall gathering at the Newseum. It was a reminder that the struggle endures, as Burma — called Myanmar by its ruling party — emerges slowly from 50 years of military rule and Russia cracks down on a wave of dissent under recently reinstalled President Vladimir V. Putin.
The 67-year-old Suu Kyi, who was in Washington to pick up the Congressional Gold Medal, and the three jailed 20-something Pussy Rioters — poster women for Amnesty International, which sponsored the event — also are Exhibit A in how to navigate Washington’s corridors of power. The nation’s capital is a crossroads for anyone with a cause. Everyone — from quasi-living saints such as Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama and Suu Kyi, to subversives like Occupy D.C. or the tobacco farmer who drove a tractor into a pond on the Mall — stakes their claims here.
At the Newseum, the Oxford-educated democracy leader gave the Russian renegades her stamp of approval.
“I don’t see why people shouldn’t sing whatever it is they want to sing!” Suu Kyi said when asked to opine on Pussy Riot — unless they sang terribly or said something “nasty to other people.” Told the punk rockers’ target was the government, she quipped, “I think governments don’t count as people.” It was manna to the crowd.
Washington is accustomed to such strange pairings.
Justice for Janitors may beat drums on K Street as a limo carrying a head of state zooms by. On the lawn of the U.S. Capitol during the July 2011 World Peace event, the Dalai Lama yukked it up with actress Whoopi Goldberg. That’s just the kind of city Washington is.
Suu Kyi, who was elected to the Burmese parliament in April, is now on the Washington A-list. On a 17-day stop in the United States, she met privately with President Obama, was welcomed by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and met with the Washington Post editorial board.
Pussy Riot has not quite arrived in official Washington.
While Suu Kyi was shuttled to the Newseum by a fleet of black Chevy suburbans and stepped onto the sidewalk with an entourage of Secret Service agents, Pussy Riot’s team was driven by an Amnesty staffer. On Wednesday, the group’s lawyers and Pyotr Verzilov, husband of jailed rocker Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, lunched on chicken sandwiches wrapped in tin foil in a conference room at Amnesty headquarters, checking their iPads and iPhones as they ate. Daughter Gera played beside them. The Free Pussy Riot Tour — two days in Washington, then three in New York, where Yoko Ono will award them the Lennon Ono Grant for Peace — tends to run late (this can happen with a 4-year-old in tow).