George W. Bush honors Aung San Suu Kyi and dissidents worldwide

Former U.S. President George W. Bush speaks Tuesday during a Washington event celebrating the success of dissidents and activists around the world.

Story highlights

  • Former president hails the Arab Spring's "challenge to authoritarian rule"
  • In a speech, he honors pro-democracy dissidents around the world
  • Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi speaks to the Washington audience via Skype
  • "Democratization is not irreversible," she says
In a rare public appearance, former President George W. Bush spoke Tuesday to dissidents from countries including China, Cuba and Syria, to honor their attempts to bring democracy to the world.
In a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, he focused on the upheaval in the Middle East that has occurred since he left office in 2009.
"In the Arab Spring, we have sent the broadest challenge to authoritarian rule since the collapse of Soviet Communism," Bush said. "The idea that Arab people are somehow content with oppression has been discredited forever. Yet, we've also seen instability, uncertainty and the revenge of brutal rulers."
During the former president's eight years in office, he reacted to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks by authorizing U.S. troops to fight in Afghanistan. He also sent troops into Iraq, bringing about the downfall of Saddam Hussein's government -- with Bush saying promoting democracy there could spread freedom across the Middle East.
"Some look at the risks inherent in democratic change, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, and find the dangers too great. America, they argue, should be content with supporting the flawed leaders they know in the name of stability. But, in the long run, this foreign policy approach is not realistic," he told a friendly crowd at the Council on Foreign Relations.
One of the world's most famous dissidents joined the event via Skype from Myanmar, also known as Burma. Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 during her house arrest for pro-democracy activities in her home country. This year, she has been elected to the parliament there.
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"Her example shows people everywhere that political isolation and prison cannot silence the call for liberty," said former first lady Laura Bush during her introduction. While serving as first lady, she voiced her support for Suu Kyi's opposition party in Myanmar, in one of her rare forays into international policy.
Suu Kyi confirmed that she has recently received a new passport from her government and is making plans to travel to Oslo, Norway, to pick up her Nobel prize.
In a speech Monday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies Sen. John McCain said the United States should look at suspending sanctions against Myanmar as the government has made "real progress" toward reform.
"This would not be a lifting of sanctions, just a suspension. And this step, as well as any additional easing of sanctions, would depend on continued progress and reform in Burma," said the Arizona Republican.
Suu Kyi was amenable to this idea.
"I am not against the suspension of sanctions as long as the people of the United States feel that this is the right thing to do at the moment," she said via Skype. She did warn that "democratization is not irreversible" and that her country could still slip back from its current reforms.
She closed with some words of encouragement for human rights advocates around the world saying, "Persevere. You will get there in the end, just go on."
Other dissidents at the event included Xiqiu "Bob" Fu from China, who was a student during the Tiananmen Square protests in China in 1989; Normando Hernandez, who was held prisoner by the Cuban government; and Ammar Abdulhamid who was exiled from Syria in 2005 for criticizing President Bashir Assad.
The event was held to launch the Freedom Collection, a program under the auspices of the George W. Bush Presidential Center that documents the stories of dissidents from around the world who risk their lives to move their countries toward freedom.