Suu Kyi set for overseas venture after 24 years in Myanmar

Posted at 05/29/12 6:51 AM

BANGKOK - Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi ventures outside Myanmar for the first time in 24 years on Tuesday in an unmistakable display of confidence in the liberalisation taking shape in her country after five decades of military rule.

The bright lights of Bangkok will greet Suu Kyi when she arrives in the Thai capital late on Tuesday, a stark contrast to her dimly lit home city of Yangon, where daily power outages have sparked protests by people testing the limits of freedom under a new quasi-civilian government.

The democracy leader who spent 15 years in detention during Myanmar's fight against dictatorship will give a speech this week at the World Economic Forum on East Asia in Bangkok, a sprawling city that boomed as Suu Kyi's Myanmar wilted under sanctions and decades of inept army rule.

Until now, Suu Kyi has refused to leave Myanmar during brief periods of freedom from her years of detention, fearing the generals she was challenging would not let her back.

Her decision to leave the country she had only expected to return to temporarily in 1988 comes after a year of dramatic change unthinkable in March 2011, when junta strongman Than Shwe made way for a government stacked with his protégés following elections seen as rigged to favor an army-backed party and held while Suu Kyi was under house arrest.

But over the 18 months since the election which the army-backed party won, the changes have been staggering.

Suu Kyi has since been released and is now a parliamentarian having been convinced by reformist President Thein Sein, a former junta heavyweight she says is sincere and trustworthy, to contest a by-election and take part in a political system devised and dominated by retired and serving soldiers.


Hundreds of political prisoners have been freed, protests legalized, media censorship eased and dialogue with ethnic minority rebels is moving forward, as is economic liberalisation.

The reforms have convinced Suu Kyi to support the suspension of Western sanctions after staunchly advocating embargoes to squeeze the generals. The reforms have also convinced her that she is free to go abroad, and will be allowed back.

"After the 2010 elections, no one believed this would happen, it's beyond our expectations," said Kyaw Zwa Moe, a Myanmar exile and editor of the Thailand-based English-language edition of the Irrawaddy magazine.

"To see her leave the country and attend an event like this is hugely significant, even for Thein Sein's government. The world has looked to her as a leader of our country and it's a chance for her to convince the international community to help prevent these reforms from pausing."

Thein Sein was also due to give a speech at the same forum in Bangkok, but has since cancelled his visit, according to Myanmar government sources, who requested anonymity.

But while a boon for Myanmar, Suu Kyi's international exposure and new role as a parliamentarian will likely add to the burden of expectations placed upon her by a public who have for years seen her as their sole hope for change.

Suu Kyi, the daughter of the leader of Myanmar's campaign for independence from British rule, spent years away from home, including many in Britain after marrying a British academic, Michael Aris.

She returned to her homeland in 1988 to take care of her dying mother and got caught up in a student-led democracy uprising that swept the country that year and which the military eventually crushed. Suu Kyi was first detained in 1989.

From then on, she refused to leave, even after her husband was diagnosed with cancer. Aris died in 1999.

She is also due next month to visit Switzerland, Norway and Britain.

She will give an address in Geneva to an international labor conference on June 14 and will spend a week in Britain from June 18, during which she will give a speech to both houses of parliament.