Last updated: May 29, 2012 8:03 pm

Suu Kyi makes historic trip abroad

Myanmar’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi arrived in Thailand on Tuesday night on her first trip abroad in 24 years. Ms Suu Kyi’s flight from Yangon, although just 85 minutes long, was seen as a historic moment for the former political prisoner and Nobel laureate, who spent most of the past two decades under house arrest in Yangon.

During her three-day visit to Thailand, Ms Suu Kyi will visit Myanmar migrant workers at a centre near Bangkok and speak at the World Economic Forum on East Asia at a Bangkok hotel on Friday. She is also expected to visit a border camp for Karen refugees from along Thailand’s western border with Myanmar.

However, Thai officials, highlighting what appears to be a hastily arranged and vaguely planned trip, said on Tuesday they had not been notified of Ms Suu Kyi’s plans to visit the area.

Ms Suu Kyi, who won a parliamentary seat along with 42 other members of her National League for Democracy in Myanmar’s April 1 by-elections, is also expected to meet Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra and other regional dignitaries at the three-day Bangkok forum. More than 630 participants from 50 countries, including four heads of state or government from Indonesia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, are expected to attend the gathering to discuss regional co-operation.

After Ms Suu Kyi returned to Myanmar from her London home in 1988 to nurse her ailing mother, she rejected all offers by the military junta to leave the country, even refusing the chance to visit her gravely ill husband, British academic Michael Aris, who died in England in 1999.

Western diplomats and commentators said her decision to leave Myanmar was the strongest sign yet of her confidence in Myanmar’s emerging democracy and the leadership of President Thein Sein.

Mr Thein Sein had also accepted an invitation to appear at the World Economic Forum on Friday, the same day as Ms Suu Kyi, but abruptly cancelled his participation on Monday. A spokesman said he had rescheduled his Thailand visit for early next week.

One person close to the president’s office dismissed speculation that Mr Thein Sein had not wanted to be “upstaged” by intense media interest in Ms Suu Kyi’s appearance, but added privately that the president had been “very surprised” to learn at the weekend of the opposition leader’s plan to attend the Bangkok forum.

“It would have been silly for them to come at the same time … they have a good relationship, but they should meet on their own terms – not on the sidelines of a meeting in Bangkok,” he added.

Since coming to power early last year, the president has undertaken reforms including freeing political prisoners, relaxing media controls and signing peace agreements with nearly a dozen ethnic rebel groups. The moves, topped by the widely praised conduct of the April 1 election, prompted the US and EU, among others, to suspend or ease sanctions and have spurred Myanmar’s rapid opening after decades of isolation under harsh military rule.

Ms Suu Kyi’s Thailand visit comes ahead of her trip in mid-June to Europe, including to the UK, where she will address parliament and accept an honorary doctorate from her old university at Oxford; Norway, where she will belatedly accept her 1991 Nobel peace prize awarded while she was under house arrest; and Switzerland, where she will give a speech to the International Labour Organisation.

In a move that underlines what one commentator called her emerging “political mega-celebrity status”, she is also considering visiting Ireland, to meet Bono, the Irish rock musician who campaigned for her release.

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