(CBS News) Congress on Wednesday bestowed its highest honor on democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi, in recognition of her efforts to free the people of Burma.
House Speaker John Boehner said the Congressional Gold Medal is a symbol not only of what Suu Kyi has already accomplished but also "of our highest hopes and for the hard work that lies ahead. Because freedom isn't easy to find. It takes a long, winding road."
Suu Kyi was freed from 15 years of house arrest in 2010, when Burma's repressive military regime began moving toward democracy. She is now a member of the Burmese parliament. President George W. Bush in 2008 signed legislation to grant her the medal, but she could not receive it in person until now.
"This is a moment for which I have been waiting for many years," Suu Kyi said.
Now free to travel without the threat of being blocked from returning, Suu Kyi is making a 17-day stop in the U.S. that overlaps with the United Nations General Assembly's annual gathering of world leaders in New York. Burmese President Thein Sein, the former general who began ushering in reform, will attend the U.N. meeting. One of his key aides, Aung Min, participated in high-level meetings Wednesday at the State Department. The Obama administration has stepped up U.S. engagement with Burma and is now considering easing more of the economic sanctions against it.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the medal ceremony remarked on the progress Burma has made so far.
"It's almost too delicious to believe that you are here in the rotunda of our great capitol, the centerpiece of our democracy, as an elected member of your parliament," Clinton said. At a time when politics and politicians are "subjects of criticism and even disdain," Clinton said, "it is well for us to remember people fight and die for the right to exercise politics, to be part of a democracy, to make decisions peacefully."
Suu Kyi met with Clinton at the State Department on Tuesday and with President Obama Wednesday afternoon, following the medal ceremony.
Her award, she said today, represents "the steadfast support of the United States Congress for the democratic aspirations of my people."