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Last updated: June 16, 2012 1:27 pm
Aung San Suu Kyi courted controversy at her long-awaited Nobel peace prize acceptance speech in Oslo calling for the release of prisoners of conscience in Myanmar and warning about “blind faith” in the country’s progress.
The pro-democracy activist and Myanmar opposition leader, who won the peace prize in 1991 but was unable to accept it as she had been placed under house arrest by the military, talked of progress but notably qualified her support for the government’s reform process.
“There have been changes in a positive direction; steps towards democratisation have been taken,” she said, speaking from City Hall in Oslo, which is one of the many stops on her Europe-wide tour. “If I advocate cautious optimism it is not because I do not have faith in the future but because I do not want to encourage blind faith.”
Ms Suu Kyi was criticised for similar remarks about the reform progress earlier this month when she told investors at the WEF forum in Bangkok – which was her first trip outside Myanmar in 24 years – not to trust the country’s laws and also warned against “reckless optimism”.
The recently elected parliamentarian made no specific mention in the speech of the violent clashes in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state between local Buddhist Rakhine and minority Muslim Rohingya which has shocked the world in recent weeks, and left an estimated 40,000 Rohingya displaced.
But she did speak of the plight of the “displaced, the homeless and the hopeless” and the “communal violence resulting in arson and murder were taking place just several days before I started out on the journey.
The majority of Ms Suu Kyi historic prize speech, where she appeared moved and slightly overwhelmed by the attention, was spent articulating what receiving the peace prize meant to her over 20 years ago, as well as thanking the Norwegians for their support in the long struggle for democracy in Myanmar.
“Often during my days of house arrest it felt as though I were no longer a part of the real world. What the Nobel peace prize did was to draw me once again into the world of other human beings outside the isolated area in which I lived, to restore a sense of reality to me.”
She also explained how it helped thrust her cause into the international spotlight: “When the Nobel Committee awarded the peace prize to me they were recognising that the oppressed and the isolated in Burma [Myanmar] were also a part of the world, they were recognising the oneness of humanity.”
After a weekend in Norway Ms Suu Kyi will fly to Dublin where the rock band U2 will stage a concert in her honour and then she will move on to the UK where she will address parliament and accept an honorary doctorate from her old university Oxford.
Some diplomats and analysts have criticised aspects of her European trip arguing that the “hero’s reception” she is receiving from national leaders, politicians and rock stars – and the overwhelming focus on her – is inadvertently undermining the efforts of Myanmar’s reformist government to reach out to the world after decades of isolation.
Ms Suu Kyi was elected to Myanmar’s parliament in April 1 by-elections, along with 42 other members of her National League for Democracy party. Her party has just 37 seats in a 440-seat lower house dominated by military and government-backed MPs, although they are the largest opposition party.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a prominent commentator and professor at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, said that apart from the hype, Ms Suu Kyi’s trip is important, marking “not only her personal triumph in overcoming more than two decades of repression and confinement under military dictatorship, but also Myanmar’s emergence as a normalising country under democratic guises”.
“How Ms Suu Kyi fares in Europe over the next two weeks will have far-reaching impact in her home country and its role in Asia’s dynamic neighbourhood,” he added. “She will have to qualitatively shift both at home and abroad from a democracy icon in the last two decades to a stateswoman in her twilight years.”
A big concern throughout the trip has been her health. She vomited during a press conference on her arrival in Switzerland and she has cancelled some events on her European trip, citing exhaustion.
“My concern about today is whether she will make it,” said Derek Tonkin, a former UK ambassador to Thailand and longtime observer of Myanmar. “She looks pale, ill ... She’s trying to run everything herself. There is no one seemingly to advise her. She needs to limit her appearances, take lots of rest, pace herself. She has a very strong will, but the physical stamina is lacking. She should retire from party politics.”
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