Yangon, Myanmar. Democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi is set to leave Myanmar on Wednesday on her first trip to Europe since 1988 to formally accept the Nobel prize that thrust her into the global limelight two decades ago.
For years, the opposition leader did not dare leave the country — even to see her sons or British husband before his death from cancer in 1999 — fearing the ruling generals would not let her return.
Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest when she was awarded the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, will travel first to Switzerland and then to Norway, Ireland, Britain and France.
As well as the Nobel speech, she is due to speak at an International Labor Organization conference, address Britain’s parliament and receive an Amnesty International human rights award in Dublin from rock star Bono.
Her visit will mark a new milestone in the political changes that have swept through the country formerly known as Burma since decades of outright military rule ended last year, bringing to power a new quasi-civilian government.
President Thein Sein is credited for a series of dramatic reforms including releasing hundreds of political prisoners, signing peace pacts with armed rebel groups and welcoming Suu Kyi’s party back into mainstream politics.
Suu Kyi, the daughter of Myanmar’s independence hero General Aung San, in April won her first ever seat in parliament, prompting Western nations to start rolling back sanctions.
Her lecture on June 16 in Oslo to accept the Nobel Prize, which thrust her onto the global stage and spurred decades of support for her party’s democratic struggle against authoritarian rule, will be hugely symbolic.
But she may also inject a note of caution — on her first overseas trip in more than two decades, Suu Kyi this month warned world business leaders at a meeting in Bangkok against “reckless optimism” over the democratic reforms.
The veteran activist is travelling with her personal assistant, her security chief, the dissident rapper-turned-politician Zayar Thaw and a youth member from her National League for Democracy (NLD) party, Nay Chin Win.
There is also a strong personal dimension to the tour, and Suu Kyi will join a “family reunion” in Britain, according to her party.
It has declined to say whether that will include seeing both her sons, Kim and Alexander Aris, as well as her grandchildren.
While Kim has visited his mother in Myanmar since her release, Alexander has not and he now lives in the United States. Suu Kyi is also expected to spend her 67th birthday on June 19 somewhere in Britain.
Her European trip comes amid a surge in sectarian violence in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state, where a wave of rioting and arson is posing a major test for the reformist government.