The elder stateswoman of the human rights struggle sat onstage in pearls and a floor-length traditionalskirt, pink roses pinned in her chignon. The shaggy-haired performance artist whose punk-rocker wife sits in a Moscow jail rose from the front row with the couple’s 4-year-old daughter, who placed a bouquet of flowers in Aung San Suu Kyi’s lap.
Four hundred young activists gathered Thursday at the steel-and-glass monument to the First Amendment known as the Newseum and applauded. A generation and a continent apart, the understated Suu Kyi, one of the world’s most famous political prisoners until her release in Burma in 2010, briefly shared the spotlight with friends and family of the feminist culture warriors known as Pussy Riot, three of whose members are serving two years in prison for an anti-Kremlin stunt in Moscow’s main Orthodox cathedral.
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).
Compared with those who filled Suu Kyi’s dance card, Pussy Riot could only book Senate staff and lesser-known House members. But their case became an international sensation when they were convicted in August of hooliganism for storming Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral altar and performing a “punk prayer” for divine intervention in the ousting of Putin.
“What a mash-up. I’m just in awe,” said David Meyer, a professor of sociology and political science at the University of California at Irvine who blogs about protest movements. “This shows that Aung San Suu Kyi is a heroic figure who’s willing to share the spotlight with people who are somehow like she used to be.”
Suu Kyi, now a political insider, is fighting to lift her country out of poverty. Days after she called for opening more doors to investment in Burma, the U.S. Treasury Department announced Wednesday that the House has backed legislation that eases a long-standing restriction on U.S. financial aid to the country.
The Pussy Riot contingent is here in advance of an Oct. 1 appeal of the women’s sentence. They don’t expect the appeal to succeed. But they hope their tour of Washington will put pressure on the Kremlin to allow the three imprisoned band members — Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich — to serve their time in Moscow instead of the remote penal colony where they are scheduled to be moved. The legal team held some meetings they can’t discuss. “It’s D.C. — you know how these things work, ” Verzilov said.
While Burmese Americans adore their long-imprisoned leader, her support of the Pussy Riot team took a few of them aback.
“She’s our rock star. And she’s not far away from all the current trends, so I can see her meeting the young people,” said Than Lwin Htun, Voice of America’s Burmese Washington bureau chief, after Suu Kyi’s visit to their headquarters.
“But I’m a little surprised, um, by the, well, I’ll try and say it: the name — Pussy Riot,” he said, his voice shaking a little. “Burmese are a little bit conservative.”