Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is set to make her first visit to a foreign country in more than 20 years when she travels to Thailand next week to meet with the country’s prime minister and attend a regional conference, according to officials from her political party.
Suu Kyi spent the majority of the past two decades under house arrest during the rule of Burma’s former military junta and while free had refused to travel abroad for fear that she would be refused reentry to her homeland by the generals who considered her a threat to their grip on power.
The opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) parliamentarian had originally been scheduled to visit Bangkok on May 28, but moved her trip back to accommodate the arrival to Burma of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, said Han Thar Myint, member of the NLD Central Executive Committee.
“Aung San Suu Kyi was to travel to Thailand ahead of the World Economic Forum on Monday, but she will be meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on May 29 in Rangoon,” he said.
“She will attend the forum in Thailand after meeting with the prime minister,” he added, saying that she would leave for Thailand either that evening or the next day.
The World Economic Forum, which will hold its annual East Asian regional meeting in Bangkok from May 30 to June 1, aims to promote stronger ties between the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) ahead of that organization’s goal of forming a single market and production base by 2015.
Aung San Suu Kyi will address the World Economic Forum next week, but the NLD was unable to provide further details on what type of role the parliamentarian will play in the summit. Reformist Burmese President Thein Sein will be in attendance at the forum.
Meeting with PM
Suu Kyi also plans to meet with Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of ousted Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, during her visit, the NLD confirmed, although details of the meeting were not immediately available. Yingluck became the first ever head of state to meet with Suu Kyi during a visit to Burma in December last year.
The Noble laureate had hoped to travel to the Mae La refugee camp, which is home to thousands of mostly Karen ethnic minorities who had fled fighting with the Burmese military, in Thailand’s Tak province, but NLD spokesman Nyan Win was unable to confirm the visit.
“We don’t know if Aung San Suu Kyi will be able to visit the refugee camp because we haven’t received approval from the Thai government,” Nyan Win told RFA Friday.
The Burmese government, which negotiated a ceasefire agreement with the rebel Karen National Union (KNU) in April, has called for the repatriation of the refugees before the rainy season this year, presumably in June, and reports indicate that Thai and Burmese officials have been engaging international organizations to assist in the process.
But nongovernmental organizations caution that no repatriation should take place before the peace process between the Burmese government and the KNU is guaranteed.
Some 150,000 refugees currently live in Thai camps along the border with Burma.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to Thailand comes ahead of a longer planned tour of Europe next month.
During the trip, Suu Kyi will make a series of key addresses, including a June 14 talk at a conference in Geneva, Switzerland, organized by the International Labor Organization.
On June 16, the opposition leader will travel to Oslo, Norway to give an acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize, which she was awarded in absentia while under house arrest in 1991.
Afterwards, she will travel to Britain where she received her degree at Oxford University in the 1960s. 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.
She is also expected to travel to Dublin, Ireland, sometime between her visits to Norway and the UK where she will meet with longtime supporter and musician Bono—front man for the rock group U2. A benefit concert is planned in her honor.
Suu Kyi, who spent most of the last 22 years under house arrest before being freed in November 2010, has not traveled outside of Burma since 1988.
She had returned to Burma from Britain that year at first to tend to her ailing mother, but later to lead the country’s pro-democracy movement against the then-ruling military junta. She was jailed in her lakeside residence in Rangoon soon after.
In 1997, while temporarily free from house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi refused to travel to the UK to visit her British husband Michael Aris who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, because she feared that the Burmese government would not let her return to the country. He later succumbed to his illness.
A new era
But all travel restrictions have now been lifted on Aung San Suu Kyi, who took office in early May after winning a parliamentary seat in by-elections in April.
The by-elections saw a resounding victory for her NLD party, which won 43 of the 45 parliamentary seats up for grabs, and could pave the way for Aung San Suu Kyi to run for the Burmese presidency in 2015, when the next general elections are scheduled to be held.
Allowing the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi to participate in the April 1 polls was the latest in a series of economic and political reforms by the government of President Thein Sein, who has also released a number of political prisoners and improved dialogue with ethnic minority groups since taking power a year ago.
Those reforms have prompted Western nations to relax longstanding sanctions against the economically impoverished country, which had been put in place to punish the former junta for its history of human rights abuses.
Reported by RFA’s Burmese service with additional reporting by Joshua Lipes. Translated by Khin May Zaw. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.