NEW DELHI -- Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar enjoyed her first full day on European soil in 24 years on Thursday, the beginning of a 17-day visit that includes stops in Switzerland, Norway, Britain, Ireland and France.
In addition to her address Thursday to the U.N. International Labor Organization in Geneva, highlights will include a long-delayed acceptance speech Saturday in Oslo for the Nobel Peace Prize she received in absentia in 1991.
"I'm excited about each country in a different way," Suu Kyi, 66, said on Wednesday before her departure from Yangon airport in her homeland. "I'll get to know this only when I get there."
The Myanmar parliamentarian, who spent 15 years in detention or under house arrest before her by-election win in April, had repeated opportunities over the past quarter century to leave Myanmar. In fact, the brutal military regime that long ruled the country would have welcomed her departure. The problem was always getting permission to return and continue her fight for more political and social rights in the long-isolated country, which is also known as Burma.
“Symbolically, the trip is deeply significant,” said Sean Turnell, a professor at Australia’s Macquarie University and editor of the Burma Economic Watch blog. “And it’s a nice moment of fulfillment personally, finally getting the Nobel prize.”
While her visit and her return ticket underscore the many recent changes as Myanmar -- including greater press and labor union freedom, the release of political prisoners and a willingness to let Suu Kyi run for political office -- divisions are tarnishing the early euphoria brought by reform.
Deadly sectarian violence broke out in western Rakhine state in recent days between Muslims and Buddhists. Protests are expanding nationwide as the government’s iron grip eases. And Suu Kyi’s criticisms of Myanmar’s judiciary and other entrenched interests are testing the patience of reformist generals controlling the levers of power.
Her European trip follows a five-day visit to Thailand in May, which gained lavish media attention and saw her treated more like a movie star than an opposition lawmaker with little direct power.
But the May trip also unearthed apparent tension between Suu Kyi and reformist President Thein Sein, who canceled his trip to the same World Economic Forum meeting in Bangkok she attended, leading to speculation he feared being upstaged. A few days later, an opinion piece in a Myanmar state newspaper said the two had a "mutual agreement to set aside differences" for the good of the nation.
In Europe, where she will likely garner even greater global attention in coming days, Suu Kyi faces a delicate balancing act, analysts said. She will want to continue supporting reformers in Myanmar, include Thein Sein, without letting up pressure on them to do more.
On arriving in Geneva on Wednesday a few minutes before midnight, Suu Kyi smiled and waved to those gathered to greet her under heavy security. Her itinerary also includes an address to the British Parliament; a birthday party for her in London; a visit to her alma mater, Oxford University; and a concert and awards ceremony in Dublin.
The British leg of her trip is expected to be particularly poignant for her, given Suu Kyi’s decision to leave behind her husband and two sons in 1988 and return to Myanmar to attend to her ailing mother. It was the last time she saw her husband, who died of cancer in 1999.
On Wednesday, the International Labor Organization lifted 13-year-old restrictions that could help expand Myanmar’s access to the European market, in return for a pledge to end forced labor by 2015. Suu Kyi remains an important barometer for foreign investors and governments trying to assess how deeply rooted and significant are the country’s reforms.
-- Mark Magnier
Photo: Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi waves on arriving at the United Nations' International Labor Organization Conference in Geneva on Thursday, part of a 17-day, five-nation European visit, her first in 24 years. Credit: Laurent Gillieron / European Pressphoto Agency.