Milestone in an epic journey as Aung San Suu Kyi leaves Burma at last
After 24 years, the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony and Westminster await on historic world tour
Almost quarter of century since she last left Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi arrived in Bangkok last night as part of a busy schedule of international travel that would have been unimaginable two years ago.
The Nobel laureate flew into Thailand for a four-day visit during which she is expected to meet the Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, pay a visit to border camps for Burmese refugees, and participate in an international economic forum. Next month she will travel to Britain, Ireland and Europe.
The 66-year-old's last experience of international travel was in April 1988 when she returned to Burma from Britain in order to care for her grievously ill mother. Her mother died in December that year and Ms Suu Kyi might have expected to return to her husband, the academic Michael Aris, and their two sons in Britain.
But by then, Burma was gripped by a democracy movement that had been violently crushed by the junta and she found herself thrust to the head of the movement and the newly formed National League for Democracy (NLD). When the junta declared there would be elections in 1990, Ms Suu Kyi started campaigning and she and many colleagues were detained in what would be the start of more than 15 years of off-and-on confinement.
The democracy leader had opportunities to leave the country but she never took them, certain that, if she did, the military authorities would never let her return. When her husband was fighting prostate cancer and the junta refused him a visa, she still remained. He died in 1999, the couple having not seen each other since 1995.
After her visit to Thailand, during which she will take part in A Conversation with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, at the World Economic Forum, she will briefly return to Burma before setting off for Europe. The Burmese President Thein Sein was also originally due to attend but he cancelled amid reports he was concerned about being upstaged.
Her schedule involves stops in Geneva and Oslo, where she will collect the Nobel Peace Prize she was awarded 21 years ago, before moving on to Britain, where she is due to speak before Parliament and visit Oxford, where she and her husband lived. She is also expected to spend time with her sons.
The NLD leader was invited to visit Britain by the Prime Minister, David Cameron, when he visited Burma last month. In response to his invitation, she replied: "Two years ago, I would have said, 'Thank you for the invitation but sorry'. Now I am able to say 'Perhaps'. That is great progress."
Some analysts say the military-backed government of Burma will be hoping the visits will persuade the international community the authorities are genuinely committed to change and to continue to keep sanctions suspended. Her trip could prove controversial if she calls for the country's constitution to be changed.
"It's a test case," said Bertil Lintner, a veteran Burma watcher. "The military is trying to use her. The question is to what extent she will play along."
Asked if she was excited, Nyan Win, the NLD spokesman, said: "She is not normally excited."
Beyond Burma: Suu Kyi's itinerary
In a far cry from the quiet home where she was kept under house arrest for 15 years, the bright lights of Bangkok is her first port of call. She arrived last night. On Friday, she is due to speak at the World Economic Forum on East Asia.
After returning to Burma briefly, Suu Kyi will head to Europe. Her first stop will be Norway, on 16 June, where she will accept the Nobel Peace Prize she was awarded 21 years ago.
Suu Kyi will share a stage with the U2 frontman Bono at a concert in her honour in Dublin on 18 June.
She will arrive in England on 19 June, which is also her 67th birthday, and stay for around a week. On 21 June, Suu Kyi will address both houses of Parliament – a rare honour accorded in the past to figures such as Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama.
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