Published May 29, 2012
BANGKOK – For 24 years, Aung San Suu Kyi was either under house arrest or too fearful that if she left Myanmar, the government would never let her return.
Now, in a sign of how much life there has changed, the democracy activist and long-time political prisoner is resuming world travels, arriving Tuesday night in neighboring Thailand after an 85-minute flight from her homeland.
With the installation of an elected government last year, and her party's own entrance into parliament this year, she can claim at least partial success for her long fight and feel the freedom to explore the world.
Suu Kyi is to spend several days in Thailand, meeting with poor migrant workers and war refugees from her homeland, as well as international movers and shakers at the World Economic Forum on East Asia.
On arrival at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport, she was whisked to a car amid heavy security, bypassing a large crowd of waiting journalists.
She'll return to Myanmar briefly and head to Europe in mid-June, with stops including Geneva and Oslo — to formally accept the Nobel Peace Prize she won 21 years ago.
In Dublin, she'll share a stage with U2 frontman Bono, a staunch Suu Kyi supporter, at a concert in her honor, according to Irish media. In England, she has been given the rare honor of addressing both houses of Parliament. France's Foreign Ministry says she also plans to stop in Paris.
The tour marks Suu Kyi's latest step in a stunning trajectory from housewife to political prisoner to opposition leader in Parliament, as Myanmar opens to the outside world and sheds a half century of military rule, with President Thein Sein getting her back for am ambitious program of reforms. Meetings with world leaders are planned along the way as dignitaries line up to shake Suu Kyi's hand.
Earlier Tuesday, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met with her in Yangon, saying her "life and her struggle, her determination has inspired millions of people all over the world" and inviting her to visit his country.
The trip "signifies a strong vote of confidence on Suu Kyi's part in the seriousness of the reforms underway in the country," said Suzanne DiMaggio, the Asia Society's vice president of Global Policy Programs. "She would not take the risk of the leaving Myanmar if she wasn't absolutely certain she would be allowed to return."
The last time the 66-year-old Nobel laureate flew abroad was a year before the Berlin Wall came down, in April 1988, when she traveled from London to Myanmar to nurse her dying mother.
Until then she had led an international lifestyle, growing up partly in India, where her mother was ambassador. She later attended Oxford, worked for the United Nations in New York and Bhutan and then married British academic Michael Aris and raised their two sons in England.
Suu Kyi returned to Myanmar just as an uprising erupted against the military regime. As daughter of Gen. Aung San, the country's independence hero, she was thrust into the forefront of demonstrations until the military brutally crushed the protests and locked her under house arrest in 1989.
Over the next two decades she became the world's most famous political prisoner. During intermittent periods of freedom, she declined opportunities to go abroad for fear she would not be allowed to re-enter Myanmar.
Suu Kyi's commitment to the cause came at high personal cost. In 1999, she stayed in Myanmar even as her husband was dying of cancer in England. They last saw each other in 1995, after which the junta denied Aris a visa.
After her release from house arrest in November 2010, Suu Kyi had an emotional reunion with her younger son, Kim Aris, when the junta gave him a visa after a decade-long separation.
The English leg of Suu Kyi's trip is bound to include some family time. She will celebrate her 67th birthday on June 19 while in England, where Kim lives.
Suu Kyi's aides have offered few details about her trip aside from the destinations, saying only that she will pack medicine for motion sickness.
"She gets airsick and seasick very easily. She will have to take her pills to prevent airsickness," said Win Htein, a senior official from her National League for Democracy party. He said she was typically stoic ahead of her travels: "She doesn't look too excited about it."
Thailand was not part of the original itinerary but Suu Kyi decided last week to attend the economic forum. She has a Friday speaking slot that is bound to be the event's main attraction.
Suu Kyi's appearance at the conference had threatened to upstage that of Myanmar President Thein Sein, and he canceled over the weekend citing "urgent matters" at home, said Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman Thani Thongphakdi. He rescheduled his first official visit to Thailand for next week.
Thein Sein took power last year from the military junta following elections that were deemed unfair by international observers. Since then he has surprised much of the world by engineering sweeping reforms, though military leaders still have great control over the country.
Since Suu Kyi's release, many international dignitaries have visited her in Myanmar, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in December and British Prime Minister David Cameron in April. Cameron suggested she visit her "beloved Oxford" in June.
Suu Kyi replied at the time: "Two years ago I would have said 'Thank you for the invitation, but sorry.' But now I am able to say 'Perhaps,' and that's great progress."