Tue 12 Jun 2012
Filed under: International
Yangon, Myanmar – The last time Aung San Suu Kyi saw Europe it was the spring of 1988. The Berlin Wall was still up and the Cold War was still on.On Wednesday, Suu Kyi will take her first trip to Europe in a quarter-century for a tour that includes her long-awaited acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize she won in 1991 for her tireless efforts to bring democracy to Myanmar.
For 24 years, the opposition leader was either under house arrest or too fearful that if she left Myanmar, the former military regime would not let her return. She stayed put even as her British husband was dying of cancer in England in 1999.
This will be Suu Kyi’s second overseas trip after a recent a five-day tour in Thailand that was seen as a test of whether the country’s new reformist government would allow her back in. The European tour will be filled with high-profile events bound to burnish Suu Kyi’s image as an international political celebrity.
Red-carpet treatment is planned across the continent for Suu Kyi’s two-week circuit around Switzerland, Norway, Ireland, England and France.
At her first stop in Geneva, Suu Kyi will address Thursday’s annual conference of the U.N.’s International Labor Organization. Her next stop is Norway for what is expected to be an emotional acceptance speech of her Nobel prize, 21 years late.
She will briefly stop in Dublin to personally thank U2 frontman Bono for his support over the years. The democracy icon and rock star will share the stage at a Monday concert in her honor organized by Amnesty International.
In England, Suu Kyi will receive the rare honor of addressing both houses of Britain’s parliament and will accept an honorary doctorate at Oxford, where she studied and later lived with her husband and two sons, Alexander and Kim.
In April 1988, Suu Kyi left her family in Oxford to fly to Myanmar to nurse her dying mother.
The daughter of Myanmar’s independence hero Gen. Aung San, Suu Kyi got swept into the forefront of an uprising against the military regime. The junta viewed her popularity as such a threat that they locked her under house arrest for 15 of the next 22 years.
In November 2010, Suu Kyi was released from house arrest and in April she won her first seat in Parliament, paving the way for Western nations to ease economic sanctions that were imposed on the former military government.
One of Suu Kyi’s biggest challenges as she travels Europe will be to avoid upsetting the reform-minded government of President Thein Sein, which has won praise for sweeping reforms but still has close ties to the military.
Her visit comes as Thein Sein struggles to contain a wave of deadly sectarian violence in western Myanmar that has pitted ethnic Rakhine Buddhists against Rohingya Muslims.
The violence has left a dozen people dead and shed light on one of the country’s enduring problems, which human rights groups have called a tinderbox of hatred with the potential to explode.
Suu Kyi’s trip to Thailand reportedly irked Thein Sein, due partly to the massive attention she received and also to the message she carried. At a speech to international investors and diplomats she warned against “reckless optimism” in Myanmar, saying the country still lacked the basic principles of a democracy.