WASHINGTON — The elder stateswoman of the human rights struggle sat on stage in pearls and a floor-length traditional skirt, 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 four-year-old daughter, who placed a bouquet of flowers in Aung San Suu Kyi’s lap.
Four hundred young activists gathered Thursday in Washington 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, the three of whom 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 Putin.
The 67-year-old Suu Kyi, in Washington to pick up the Congressional Gold Medal, gave the Russian renegades her stamp of approval.
“I don’t see why people shouldn’t sing whatever it is they want to sing!” she 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.”