BANGKOK – Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi basked in a long-overdue standing ovation at her first speech before an international audience Friday, but quickly shifted the focus from herself to Myanmar's many needs — and how the world can help.
Despite recently emerging from 24 years of isolation, the former political prisoner appeared completely at ease speaking to the World Economic Forum in Bangkok where she urged the international community to exercise "healthy skepticism" toward Myanmar's much-touted reform process.
It is not the first time that Suu Kyi has called for caution in the world's approach to Myanmar — but it is the first time she has uttered the sentiment on foreign soil since becoming her country's democracy crusader in 1988. The speech was broadcast live across several time zones.
The Oxford graduate and longtime political prisoner also delighted the audience with an anecdote about her arrival in Bangkok — on her first international flight in decades.
"The captain was so very kind as to invite me to sit in the cockpit," she said with a smile. At first she marveled at the high-tech control panel but then was "completely fascinated by the lights" of modern Bangkok sprawled out below her.
Next month, the 66-year-old Suu Kyi will see how much Europe has changed, too, with visits to five countries including England and Norway, where she will formally accept her Nobel Peace Prize, 21 years after winning it.
Klaus Schwab, the forum's founder, introduced her as "one of the most extraordinary personalities of this century."
Suu Kyi spent 15 out of 22 years locked under house arrest by the former military regime, during which time she occasionally spoke to the outside world through audio and video messages. She was granted freedom after Myanmar held elections in 2010 and was elected to Parliament in April. She kicked off her international tour this week.
The mission of her travels is to discuss how the world can help "that little piece of the world that some of us call Burma and some of us call Myanmar," she said.
Dressed in pale blue silk with a strand of white flowers in her hair, Suu Kyi listed the country's most essential needs as basic education and vocational training to foster political reforms and jobs to end high unemployment among the young, who have little to do in life and not much hope.
"I'm extremely worried about youth unemployment," which she called "a time bomb."
Anticipating huge aid and investment to develop Myanmar's stunted infrastructure, Suu Kyi said she hoped foreign firms would invest cautiously and transparently, so the influx of money can benefit the impoverished masses.
"We do not want more investment to mean more possibilities for corruption," she said. "Our country must benefit."
Myanmar's sputtering economy, in ruins after half a century of military rule and years of harsh Western sanctions, has led to huge unemployment and has forced millions of people to seek jobs abroad.
Since elections last year, Myanmar's President Thein Sein has surprised much of the world by engineering sweeping reforms. But Suu Kyi noted that the country is only in the very early phases of building a democracy and still lacks rule of law and an independent judiciary.
"These days I am coming across what I call reckless optimism," she told the room packed with several hundred people and a wall of TV cameras. She drew applause, saying, "A little bit of healthy skepticism I think is in order."
Myanmar's reforms have prompted the U.S. and Europe to ease economic sanctions they imposed during the military's regime, but many human rights groups have warned that while those moves are good for the country's development they will weaken incentives to continue democratic reforms.
At a news conference later Friday, Suu Kyi said she didn't doubt Thein Sein's desire to make reforms but that he was not the country's sole power.
"I do believe in the sincerity of the president when he speaks of his commitment to reform," she said. "But I also recognize that he's not the only person in government. And, as I keep repeating, there's the military to be reckoned with."
Thein Sein had been scheduled to address the forum but withdrew after Suu Kyi's attendance was announced, amid speculation he felt he might be upstaged. Energy Minister Than Htay attended in his stead and announced Friday that Myanmar would host the forum next year.
Thein Sein's visit to Thailand had originally been postponed until next week, but Myanmar state television announced Friday night that it was being postponed again, without a new date being set.
Suu Kyi's speech lasted about 10 minutes and was followed by a 15-minute question-answer session with Schwab. He ended the event by asking Suu Kyi what went through her mind when she stepped off the airplane after 24 years in Myanmar.
Suu Kyi said she was stunned before she even left the plane.
"It struck me that 30 years ago my attention would have been riveted on the control panel, not all the lights below," she said. Bangkok's urban sprawl glittering at night stood in stark contrast to sleepy Yangon, where rolling blackouts due to electricity shortages have spurred protests for more than a week.
"When I left Burma three days ago there were candlelight demonstrations all over the country," she said. The two cities were once not so far apart but now: "The difference is considerable."
She drew laughter from the audience by adding: "What went through my mind was, 'We need an energy policy!'"
Associated Press writers Brian Carovillano and Grant Peck contributed to this report.