Suu Kyi arrives in Europe with a plea: don't let investors derail democracy

After 25 years away, Burma's opposition leader urges continent to be a force for good
  • @AndrewBuncombe

Any foreign investment in Burma must help the progress of democracy, the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi said during her first visit to Europe in almost 25 years.

Speaking at the International Labour Organisation in Geneva, the Nobel laureate said companies seeking to take advantage of the recent lifting of sanctions by the West must not do anything to hinder the path of reform.

"I would like to call for aid and investment that will strengthen the democratisation process by promoting social and economic progress that is beneficial to political reform," she said.

Ms Suu Kyi, 66, apparently decided to make the ILO her first stop on her summer tour of Europe because of the work the group had done highlighting child labour and exploitation in Burma, particularly at the hands of the military authorities. In turn, the ILO decided to reward Thein Sein, Burma's President, for the flurry of reforms his government has made by lifting restrictions that have blocked Burma's involvement in the organisation's work since 1999.

The democracy leader will head to Oslo tomorrow where she will make a belated acceptance speech and accept the Nobel Peace Prize that was awarded to her 21 years ago. At the time, she was being detained by Burma's military authorities following the 1990 election that her National League for Democracy had won but which the junta refused to acknowledge.

She will then travel to Ireland and Britain, where she will celebrate her birthday with members of her family.

Ms Suu Kyi's foreign visit – this summer marks the first time for 24 years she was either able or willing to leave Burma – comes as President Thein Sein is facing a major test over his ability to deal with raging ethnic violence in Burma's west.

More than 21 people have been killed and hundreds have lost their homes in violent clashes between Muslims and Buddhists. Thousands of Rohingya people in Rakhine state, who are Muslims, are trying to flee Burma after some of the worst ethnic violence in decades. While some reports suggest the situation has calmed in recent days, it appears that it is still very tense. Matters have not been helped by the decision of neighbouring Bangladesh not to allow boatloads of would-be migrants to cross the international border.

"Tensions between the two groups have eased. There are around 20,000 refugees in [the city of] Sittwe. Most of them are from the villages where people fled in fear of the violence," Aung Myat Kyaw, a local politician, told Reuters. "They are in need of food and, because of the heavy rain, there are concerns about the refugees' health and whether they have enough shelter."

At a press conference in Switzerland, one of five countries she will visit, Ms Suu Kyi was asked about the violence. "Without the rule of law, such communal strife will only continue," she said. "The present situation will have to be handled with delicacy and sensitivity and we need the co-operation of all people concerned to rebuild the peace that we want for our country."