Geneva. Myanmar democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi arrived in Switzerland on Wednesday on the first leg of a historic European tour which will see her accept the Nobel Peace Prize that thrust her into the global spotlight two decades ago.
On her arrival in Geneva Suu Kyi stepped off the flight “smiling and seemingly in great form,” an airport spokesman said.
The lakeside city is the starting point for the more than two-week trip taking the opposition leader to Britain, France, Ireland and Norway, where she will give a speech acknowledging the 1991 Nobel award.
The visit marks a new milestone in the political changes that have swept the country formerly known as Burma since decades of military rule ended last year, bringing to power a new quasi-civilian government.
It is Suu Kyi’s first trip to Europe since 1988 after spending the majority of the next 22 years under house arrest.
She left Yangon as western Myanmar was rocked by sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya that has left dozens dead and prompted President Thein Sein to warn of disruption to the fragile reform process.
The president is credited for a series of reforms including releasing hundreds of political prisoners, signing peace pacts with armed rebel groups and welcoming Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party back into mainstream politics.
In Switzerland she will follow in the footsteps of fellow political icon Nelson Mandela by addressing the International Labour Organization (ILO) conference in Geneva before talks with Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter in the capital Bern.
Later in the trip Suu Kyi will address Britain’s parliament and receive an Amnesty International human rights award in Dublin from rock star Bono.
The daughter of Myanmar’s independence hero General Aung San won her first ever seat in parliament in April, prompting Western nations to start rolling back sanctions.
Suu Kyi addressed the ILO by video last year when she urged the agency, which draws up and monitors international labour standards, to expand its work in her country and “help usher in an era of broad-based social justice.”
The United Nations body has long sought to end the practice of forced labour in member Myanmar, said to be widespread by a panel investigating in the 1990s.
The agency withdrew its technical aid and banned the country from the majority of its meetings after the government failed to act.
Progress was made in the last decade however and in March this year Myanmar signed an action plan agreement which aims to eliminate forced labour by 2015.
On the eve of Suu Kyi’s visit, ILO members attending its annual conference agreed to restore full membership rights to the country.
The agency is also playing an advisory role in the establishment of trade unions which were banned under the military junta.
The ILO welcomed Suu Kyi’s decision to address the conference in person this year.
“I would say it’s remarkable,” said Kari Tapiola, special advisor to ILO Director General Juan Somavia.
“It shows her interest in the labour agenda that she has decided to come here before going to visit Oslo.”
Suu Kyi will later take the train to Bern where she will meet with Burkhalter.
“The political situation in Myanmar, which is currently undergoing a process of opening up, will be the focus of the talks,” a Foreign Ministry statement said.
Suu Kyi will dine with Swiss President Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf on Thursday evening and visit parliament before heading to Oslo on Friday.
Switzerland recently announced it will open an embassy in Myanmar and increase its development aid to about 25 million Swiss francs ($26 million) over the next four years.