Aung San Suu Kyi came to the White House on Wednesday for a meeting with the president of the United States as the de facto leader of Burma.
What a strange sentence to be writing.
Only six years ago, in 2010, Suu Kyi emerged from a combined 15 years of house arrest. In 2012, after the generals who were responsible for her confinement launched a surprising set of reforms, she won her first seat in parliament. Last year, her party of dissidents swept to power in the first democratic elections in 25 years.
This trip is important for political and symbolic reasons.
On a political level, Suu Kyi is in Washington to talk with President Obama and U.S. lawmakers about the lifting of the remaining sanctions on Burma, also known as Myanmar. Obama told her at the White House that the United States is prepared to do so. Her discussions in Washington may include the urgent situation in the western part of the country, where Rohingya Muslims live in apartheid-like conditions.
On a symbolic level, though, Suu Kyi will cement her role as the country’s leader despite a military-drafted constitution that prevents her from becoming president, a post filled by trusted aide Htin Kyaw; she has taken up the posts of foreign minister and “state counsellor.”
But her visit has also been a poignant reminder of all that she sacrificed to arrive at this moment.
On her way to the United States, she stopped off in London, where she met with Prime Minister Theresa May and received a pledge of more than $100 million in aid.
While in London, the 71-year-old Nobel laureate took time out of her schedule Sunday to see her younger son, Kim, 39, and her grandchildren.
Since 1988, when Suu Kyi left her family in Britain to return home and care for her sick mother, she has rarely seen Kim or her older son, Alexander. After becoming involved in the student uprising against the government the same year, she was imprisoned in her lakeside home in Rangoon. Visits were few and far between. The years passed.
She was unable to be with her husband, British historian Michael Aris, when he died of cancer in 1999. She was afraid that if she left, the junta would not let her return.
Suu Kyi’s plight mirrored that of others. Tens of thousands saw the breakup of their families over decades of military rule, which lasted from 1962 to 2010.
“Certainly there is much gratitude and solidarity with Suu among ordinary Burmese who themselves suffered in so many ways,” Peter Popham, the author of two books on Suu Kyi, said in an email. “It counts for a lot. She never wavered, never walked away.”
The joyful scenes of Suu Kyi hugging her family in London, captured in blurry photos posted to Facebook, were deeply moving to supporters, who took to the same social media platform to thank her.
“My tears are falling for you, mom,” wrote Win Ei Phyu, using a Burmese term of respect for Suu Kyi that is sadly ironic given the context.
“I also have two sons,” wrote Yiyi Latt. “I couldn’t do it the way you did. I respect you mother.”
One of the commentators even addressed her son.
"Kim, you must be proud of your mother. She tries to forget her own sons and grandchildren for the sake of her country, which no mother can do. It must be very hard for her to do it. But she is doing it. Steel hearted lady. We are proud of her."