In an emotional return to the country she left two decades ago assuming she would be back within months, Aung San Suu Kyi arrived in Britain today with a message of thanks to her followers around the world and a warning to unethical foreign investors hoping to make a fast profit out of her homeland.
In front of a packed audience in central London the Burmese opposition leader described how international support helped sustain her through the 14 dark years of forced house arrest by Burma’s military junta, an imprisonment which stopped her from leaving her homeland even as her British husband lay dying from cancer.
"It's all of you and people like you that have given me the strength to continue," she said to cheers from a crowd of students and academics at the London School of Economics before adding with characteristic humour: “And I suppose I do have a stubborn streak in me."
The 67-year-old dissident has spent the past week on a whistle stop tour of Europe made possible by gradual reforms in Burma which are being seen as a glimmer of hope for an impoverished nation that has been under the heel of a military dictatorship for half a century.
In Norway she was greeted by thousands as she finally picked up the Nobel Peace Prize she was awarded 21 years ago whilst in Ireland a rock concert was held in her honour.
But in many ways it is her return to Britain that holds the most significance for a woman who spent her early adulthood here, found love and gave birth to two sons before chance and nationalist duty severed her from her family and swept her up into the fight for Burma’s future.
Her arrival is only the second time Miss Suu Kyi has been allowed to leave Burma in 24-years following a trip to Thailand earlier this year. Over the next four days she will catch up with friends and loved ones at her former university of Oxford, deliver a speech to the Houses of Parliament and meet members of Britain’s exiled Burmese community.
In comparison to the festival atmosphere that greeted her in Oslo and Dublin, her British tour began on a noticeably cerebral note. Those expecting to see Aung San Suu Kyi the charismatic orator were instead confronted with a carefully spoken woman with flowers in her hair and a traditional pink Burmese longyi skirt debating with academics at LSE about the importance of the rule of law.
The subject had been deliberately chosen by Miss Suu Kyi who has warned that her country still has a long way to go before it can consider itself truly free of military repression.
"The reason why I've emphasised the rule of law so much in my political work, is because this is what we all need if we are to really proceed towards democracy," she said. "Unless people see that justice is done and seen to be done, we cannot believe in genuine reform."
Burma’s ruling military elite surprised many two years ago when it transferred power to a civilian government led by Thein Sein and embarked on a series of reforms aimed at seeing western sanctions dropped against the regime. Elections were held for a handful of parliamentary seats earlier this year in which Miss Suu Kyi won a position but much of the power - including 75 percent of the parliamentary seats - still rests squarely in the hands of the military.
Although human rights abuses are still widespread – and in many ways have worsened under Thein Sein – most European sanctions have been lifted with the expectation that businesses will soon enter Burma en masse.
Suu Kyi has publicly encouraged investment but only if it promotes reform and provides genuine opportunities for Burma’s people.
Calling for “democracy friendly, human right friendly investments” she warned: “Investors must take responsibility for the results of the business that they do inside our country. It's not just environmental consciousness, but also a consciousness of possible long-term results.”
Mark Farmaner, from the Free Burma Campaign, said Miss Suu Kyi and many other Burmese have concerns that investors are looking for quick profits in Burma rather than a chance to invest in a nascent democracy’s future.
“Rangoon is full of business people from all over the world now sensing that they can access cheap resources and cheap labour,” he said. “That’s not the kind of investment and trade that people in Burma want to see and that’s what Aung San Suu Kyi is worried about. She wants real jobs with real training to build up Burma’s skills.”
Many of those in the crowd yesterday were awed by the prospect of seeing a woman who has often been compared to Nelson Mandela for her steadfast non-violence in spite of brutal repression against the Burmese people.
Raluca Enescu, a 22-year-old student from Romania, queued for two hours to obtain a reserve ticket to the yesterday’s talk at LSE.
“Aung San Suu Kyi has always said we should use our liberty to promote the cause of Burmese liberty,” she said. “As someone who was born in Romania just after the revolution I know how important that is. My parents always told me that it meant the world to know that dissidents in Eastern Europe had the support of people in the West during the Communist times. We have the same duty to support people in Burma.”
Dr Wynn Aung, a retired 58-year-old doctor from Colchester, left Burma in 1989, a year after Suu Kyi returned to her homeland initially to care for her ailing mother and inadvertently became the leading figurehead for a pro-democracy uprising which was crushed with brutal force. Wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with Suu Kyi’s face he said he never thought he’d see Suu Kyi in Britain.
“I was starting to lose hope,” he said. “I had begun to think that she wouldn’t even be released – I never thought she’d be allowed to travel to Europe.”
Asked what it was that drew so many people to her cause he suggested: “She has this ability to inspire people. She’s such a down to earth person. It means she’s popular with everybody, from the grassroots to the very rich.”
Claudia Trauffler, 22, a Spanish born international relations student, summed it up a different way. “She’s just such an impressive person,” she said. “She’s our generation’s Gandhi.”