Suu Kyi warns adoring crowd that Burma has a long way to go


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The Independent Online

The Burmese democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, charmed the crowd at her first international audience in 24 years, but said that while she was optimistic about her country's future, the world must retain a "healthy scepticism".

"I am optimistic because my party and I have worked very hard to gain these changes," she said. "I think we have the right to be optimistic ... But cautiously so."

Ms Suu Kyi's appearance at the World Economic Forum event in Bangkok earned her a standing ovation as well as a round of laughs when she shared the moment she had been invited into the cockpit of the Thai Airways jet as it made its approach towards the gleaming Thai capital.

"It struck me that 30 years ago my attention would have been riveted on the control panel, not all the lights below," she said. "When I left Burma three days ago there were candlelight demonstrations all over the country [over power shortages] ... I have to say, what went through my mind was, we need an energy policy."

Ms Suu Kyi's visit to Thailand was her first foreign trip in 24 years. Previously she was either unable or else unwilling to leave Burma for fear the military authorities would not allow her to return. Even when her husband, the British academic Michael Aris, was dying from prostate cancer and was refused a visa to visit her, she declined to leave her country.

The 66-year-old Nobel laureate, who will travel to Europe and Britain later this month, also voiced her concern about the crisis of unemployment within Burma. She said there was a need for foreign firms to provide training and investment but also for an effective legal system to ensure fairness.

"The proportion of young people unemployed in Burma is extremely high. That is a time bomb," she said, according to Reuters. "Please don't think about how much benefit will come to those who are investing. I understand investors invest because they hope to profit from ventures – I agree with that – but our country must benefit as much as those who invest. I want this commitment to mean quite simply jobs – as many jobs as possible."

She said there was also a pressing need for Burma to invest in education, after decades of neglect. Basic education was the priority, she said, along with vocational training. "What I am afraid of is not so much joblessness as hopelessness," she added.

Earlier in the week, the leader of the National League for Democracy had visited communities in the Gulf of Thailand made up of Burmese migrants, employed mainly in the seafood industry. She encountered large, screaming crowds, yelling out her name and chanting "Mother Suu".

Ms Suu Kyi's international tour comes two months after by-elections in Burma, which her party swept. There has been a flurry of reforms and Western nations have suspended most sanctions amid a chase to cash in on deals that have previously gone to Chinese, South Korean, Thai and Indian firms.

But campaigners say much more could be done. There are still hundreds of political prisoners in the country's jails and its constitution provides 25 per cent of all seats in parliament to military officers.

Asked about her desire to change the constitution – something that requires a 75 per cent majority – she said she would need to secure the votes of all civilian MPs and at least one military member. She added: "That is going to be the toughest job of all."