Not for nearly 25 years has Aung San Suu Kyi dared step outside her homeland. Not even to see her husband as he lay dying in Britain. If she ever left, she feared, Myanmar’s military government would never let her return home.
Determined never to give up, the woman who has become an icon not only for her own people but for democracy activists worldwide refused to give the generals an opportunity to sideline her. She put up with 15 years of house arrest rather than risk becoming an exiled irrelevance.
Now she is on her first international trip since 1988, visiting neighboring Thailand to attend a World Economic Forum summit on Friday, in a sign of her confidence in recent reforms in Myanmar (also known as Burma).
Today, though, her first full day abroad, she must have felt right at home.
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi spent the morning in the town of Mahachai, home to Thailand’s largest community of Burmese migrant workers. Thousands mobbed her before she addressed the crowd from the balcony of a community center.
Around 2.5 million impoverished Burmese have fled their country in search of jobs in Thailand – an illustration of how badly Myanmar’s economy suffered under nearly half a century of military rule.
Sorting out that mess is one of the prime tasks facing Myanmar’s nominally civilian government. The political reforms the government has pushed through over the past 12 months – including partial parliamentary elections in April that Aung San Suu Kyi’s party won by a landslide – are generally seen as a first step toward economic recovery since they have prompted Western nations to suspend damaging economic sanctions.
On Friday, at the World Economic Forum, Aung San Suu Kyi will be addressing the sorts of Asian movers and shakers whom Myanmar is counting on to invest in the country’s economic revival. Businessmen from around the world have recently been pouring into Yangon, the country’s commercial capital, seeking opportunities as Myanmar opens up to the rest of the world.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s trip to Thailand is a sort of test run, though nobody seriously expects the Myanmar government to turn her back when she flies home to Yangon this weekend.
Next month she sets off on a more ambitious journey, and one freighted with sentiment as much as with politics, to Europe.
Besides visiting Switzerland and Ireland, Aung San Suu Kyi will go to Britain, where she was living before she returned to Myanmar in 1988 to care for her ailing mother, and where her British husband died in her absence. She will also go to Oslo, to formally accept the Nobel Peace Prize that she could not collect in person in 1991, for fear of getting stuck outside her homeland.