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On September 19, Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese democracy activist who spent 15 years under house arrest and is on a 17-day trip to the US, received the Congressional Gold Medal. Congress awarded her the medal on May 6, 2008, when Suu Kyi was still incarcerated; it is only in recent months that she has been able to travel abroad. (She also recently received the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to her in 1991.) The legislation granting the medal to Suu Kyi states that it is awarded “in recognition of her courageous and unwavering commitment to peace, nonviolence, human rights, and democracy in Burma.”

As is the case with many Congressional Gold Medals, Suu Kyi’s was awarded during a ceremony in the Capitol rotunda. Congressional leaders and high-profile supporters of Burma’s democracy movement praised Suu Kyi’s commitment to democracy and human rights and noted how they had been personally inspired by Suu Kyi’s perseverance and courage.

Back of the medal depicting a peacock (US Mint)

Front of the medal depicting Suu Kyi (US Mint) 

Here’s how the US Mint describes the medal:

The obverse (heads side), designed and sculpted by United States Mint Sculptor-Engraver Don Everhart, features a portrait of Suu Kyi with the inscription DAW AUNG SAN SUU KYI around the border. The likeness of Suu Kyi was based on the photograph by Eddie Adams.

The reverse (tails), also designed and sculpted by Everhart, depicts a peacock with the inscriptions DEDICATED TO PROMOTING FREEDOM AND DEMOCRACY IN BURMA and ACT OF CONGRESS 2008.

Congress first awarded a Gold Medal in 1776—to General George Washington. Early recipients of Congress’ highest honor were all in the military, but eventually Congress broadened the scope of the award to recognize people in many fields (and from other countries) for great achievements, significant contributions, or lifetimes of service. Recent recipients have included Arnold Palmer, the Tuskegee Airmen, and the Dalai Lama. In the summer of 2000, Congress awarded medals to cartoonist Charles M. Schulz, Pope John Paul II, and Ronald and Nancy Reagan.

Each medal is unique. The legislation awarding the medal directs the US Mint to design and produce a medal that depicts the person or event being honored. If the legislation allows it, the Mint may also produce bronze copies for sale to the public.

Reverse side of the medal honoring Women Airforce Service Pilots (US Mint)