Burma’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi left Wednesday on an 18-day trip to Europe as ethnic strife rocked the western part of the country.
The 66-year-old democracy campaigner will address an International Labor Organization (ILO) meeting and pick up her overdue Nobel prize during her first trip to the region since she left Britain in 1988 and began living under house arrest in Rangoon.
"She left at 10:00 am this morning on Thai Airways International,” her National League for Democracy (NLD) party’s spokesman Nyan Win said Wednesday in Rangoon. “They will arrive in Switzerland tomorrow.”
Accompanied by four aides and NLD members—Khun Thar Myint, Tin Mar Aung, Zayer Thaw, and Naychi Win—she will travel through Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, the UK, Ireland, and France.
Her trip comes as President Thein Sein scrambles to ease sectarian tensions between Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya in Rakhine state, which has been under emergency rule since Sunday. About two dozen people have died in the clashes.
While in Europe, the opposition leader could face calls from international rights groups to stand up for the Rohingya—a stateless group the U.N. has called one of the world’s most persecuted minorities—at the risk of alienating some of her supporters in Burma, where the Rohingya are mostly considered illegal immigrants and viewed with hostility.
An NLD spokesman said before Aung San Suu Kyi left for Europe she had instructed him to work "to help both sides equally," according to Agence France Presse.
Rohingya living in refugee camps in Bangladesh appealed Wednesday for Aung San Suu Kyi to help other members of their group in Burma.
Last week, she met with Muslim leaders in Rangoon to express her condolences, stressing a need for the country’s courts and police to take control of the situation.
On her first stop on her European tour, Aung San Suu Kyi will address the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) annual summit in Geneva on Friday.
Ahead of her visit, the ILO announced Wednesday that it is welcoming Burma back into its fold for the first time since 1990.
“The International Labour Organization has lifted its restrictions on the full participation of Myanmar [Burma] in its activities and decided to review the progress on the elimination of forced labour in the country next year,” the global watchdog said in a statement.
The decision follows an agreement by ILO and Burmese officials on an action plan to end forced labor, as well as Burmese Labor Minister Aung Kyi’s promise in a speech to the ILO earlier this month that the country will stop the practice before 2015.
After the ILO meeting, Aung San Suu Kyi will travel to Oslo for a ceremony to accept the Nobel Peace Prize she was awarded in 1991.
Her British husband and two sons in the UK had accepted the award on her behalf while she was afraid to leave her homeland for fear the generals who considered her a threat to their grip on power would not allow her to return.
Afterwards, she will travel to Britain, where she studied at Oxford University in the 1960s, and celebrate her 67th birthday with her sons.
She will be awarded an honorary doctorate in civil law at her alma mater on June 20, a day before addressing both houses of the British parliament—an honor bestowed on only a handful of world leaders.
Her stop in Ireland will include a benefit concert by rock group U2 hosted by Amnesty International.
The European tour is her second trip abroad in 24 years, after a week-long stay in Thailand earlier this month, where she gave a keynote speech to the World Economic Forum’s regional meeting, warning international investors to be “cautious” in doing business in her country.
While in the country, she met with Burmese migrant workers and highlighted the plight of refugees living in camps near the Burmese border who fled ethnic fighting in northern Burma’s Kachin state that has flared since last year.
Reported by RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Khin May Zaw. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.