By Associated Press in Bangkok/ The Guardian –
For 24 years, Aung San Suu Kyi was either under house arrest or too fearful to leave Burma in case the government would never let her return. Now, in a sign of how much Burma has changed, she is back to being a world traveller.
Bangkok’s skyscrapers and sprawl will be the opposition leader’s first glimpse of the world outside Burma for nearly a quarter-century when she lands on Tuesday night to kick off a tour of two continents. It is a stark contrast to the sleepy city of Rangoon, where the former military regime kept her a prisoner in her own home for 15 years.
Aung San Suu Kyi will spend several days in Thailand, where she will speak on Friday at the World Economic Forum on East Asia. She will return to Burma briefly and head to Europe in mid-June, with stops including Geneva and Oslo – to formally accept the Nobel peace prize she won 21 years ago.
In Dublin, she will share a stage with U2 frontman Bono, a staunch Aung San Suu Kyi supporter, at a concert in her honour, according to Irish media. In the UK, she has been given the rare honour of addressing both houses of parliament. France’s foreign ministry says she also plans to stop in Paris.
The tour marks Aung San Suu Kyi’s latest step in a remarkable journey from housewife to political prisoner to opposition leader in parliament, as Burma opens to the outside world and sheds a half century of military rule. Meetings with world leaders are planned along the way as dignitaries line up to shake Aung San Suu Kyi’s hand.
The last time the 66-year-old Nobel laureate flew abroad was a year before the Berlin Wall came down, in April 1988, when she travelled from London to Burma to nurse her dying mother. Until then she had led an international lifestyle, growing up partly in India, where her mother was ambassador. She later attended Oxford, worked for the United Nations in New York and Bhutan and then married British academic Michael Aris and raised their two sons in England.
Aung San Suu Kyi returned to Burma as an uprising erupted against the military regime. As daughter of Gen Aung San, the country’s independence hero, she was thrust to the forefront of demonstrations until the military brutally crushed the protests and put her under house arrest in 1989.
Over the next two decades she became the world’s most famous political prisoner. During intermittent periods of freedom, she declined opportunities to go abroad for fear she would not be allowed to re-enter Burma.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s commitment to the cause came at high personal cost. In 1999, she stayed in Burma even as her husband was dying of cancer in England. They last saw each other in 1995, after which the junta denied Aris a visa.
After her release from house arrest in November 2010, Aung San Suu Kyi had an emotional reunion with her youngest son, Kim Aris, when the junta gave him a visa after a decade-long separation.
The English leg of Aung San Suu Kyi’s trip will include some family time. She will celebrate her 67th birthday on 19 June while in England, where Kim lives.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s aides have offered few details about her trip aside from the destinations, saying only that she will pack medicine for motion sickness. “She gets airsick and seasick very easily. She will have to take her pills to prevent airsickness,” said Win Htein, a senior official from her National League for Democracy party. He said she was typically stoic ahead of her travels: “She doesn’t look too excited about it.”
Thailand was not part of the original itinerary but Aung San Suu Kyi decided last week to attend the economic forum. She has a Friday speaking slot that is bound to be the event’s main attraction.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s appearance at the conference had threatened to upstage that of Burma’s president, Thein Sein, but he pulled out over the weekend citing “urgent matters” at home, said Thai foreign ministry spokesman Thani Thongphakdi. He rescheduled his first official visit to Thailand for next week.
Thein Sein took power last year from the military junta following elections that were deemed unfair by international observers. Since then he has surprised much of the world by engineering sweeping reforms, though military leaders still have great control over the country.
Since Aung San Suu Kyi’s release, many international dignitaries have visited her in Burma, including US. secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton in December and British prime minister David Cameron in April. Cameron suggested she visit her “beloved Oxford” in June.
Aung San Suu Kyi replied at the time: “Two years ago I would have said ‘Thank you for the invitation, but sorry.’ But now I am able to say ‘Perhaps,’ and that’s great progress.”