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Suu Kyi, in Myanmar since 1988, starts world tour

- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 29, 2012

BANGKOK — Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi arrived here in the Thai capital Thursday night on her first trip abroad in more then two decades.

For 24 years, Mrs. Suu Kyi either was under house arrest or was too fearful that if she left Myanmar, the government would never let her return.

Now, in a sign of how much life there has changed, she's back to being a world traveler, catching an 85-minute flight to neighboring Thailand.

With the installation of an elected government last year and her party's own entrance into parliament this year, she can claim at least partial success for her long fight and feel the freedom to explore the world.

Mrs. Suu Kyi is to spend several days in Thailand, meeting with poor migrant workers and war refugees from her homeland, as well as international movers and shakers at the World Economic Forum on East Asia.

She'll return to Myanmar briefly and then head to Europe in mid-June, with stops including Geneva and Oslo, where she formally will accept the Nobel Peace Prize she won 21 years ago.

In Dublin, she'll share a stage with U2 frontman Bono, a staunch Suu Kyi supporter, at a concert in her honor, according to Irish media. In England, she has been given the rare honor of addressing both houses of Parliament. France's Foreign Ministry says she also plans to stop in Paris.

The tour marks Mrs. Suu Kyi's latest step in a stunning trajectory from housewife to political prisoner to opposition leader in parliament, as Myanmar opens to the outside world and sheds a half-century of military rule. Meetings with world leaders are planned along the way as dignitaries line up to shake Mrs. Suu Kyi's hand.

The last time the 66-year-old Mrs. Suu Kyi flew abroad was a year before the Berlin Wall came down, in April 1988, when she traveled from London to Myanmar to nurse her dying mother.

Until then she had led an international lifestyle, growing up partly in India, where her mother was ambassador. She later attended Oxford, worked for the United Nations in New York and Bhutan, and then married British academic Michael Aris and raised their two sons in England.

Mrs. Suu Kyi returned to Myanmar just as an uprising erupted against the military regime. As daughter of Gen. Aung San, the country's independence hero, she was thrust into the forefront of demonstrations until the military brutally crushed the protests and locked her under house arrest in 1989.

Over the next two decades she became the world's most famous political prisoner. During intermittent periods of freedom, she declined opportunities to go abroad for fear she would not be allowed to re-enter Myanmar.

Mrs. Suu Kyi's commitment to the cause came at high personal cost. In 1999, she stayed in Myanmar even as her husband was dying of cancer in England. They last saw each other in 1995, after which the junta denied Aris a visa.

After her release from house arrest in November 2010, Mrs. Suu Kyi had an emotional reunion with her younger son, Kim Aris, when the junta gave him a visa after a decade-long separation.

The English leg of Mrs. Suu Kyi's trip is bound to include some family time. She will celebrate her 67th birthday on June 19 while in England, where Kim Aris lives.

Mrs. Suu Kyi's aides have offered few details about her trip aside from the destinations, saying only that she will pack medicine for motion sickness.

"She gets airsick and seasick very easily. She will have to take her pills to prevent airsickness," said Win Htein, a senior official from her National League for Democracy party. He said she was typically stoic ahead of her travels: "She doesn't look too excited about it."

Thailand was not part of the original itinerary, but Mrs. Suu Kyi decided last week to attend the economic forum. She has a Friday speaking slot that is bound to be the event's main attraction.

Mrs. Suu Kyi's appearance at the conference threatened to upstage that of Myanmar President Thein Sein, but he canceled over the weekend, citing "urgent matters" at home, said Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman Thani Thongphakdi. He rescheduled his first official visit to Thailand for next week.

Thein Sein took power last year from the military junta following elections that were deemed unfair by international observers. Since then, he has surprised much of the world by engineering sweeping reforms, though military leaders still have great control over the country.

Since Mrs. Suu Kyi's release, many international dignitaries have visited her in Myanmar, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in December and British Prime Minister David Cameron in April. Mr. Cameron suggested she visit her "beloved Oxford" in June.

Mrs. Suu Kyi replied at the time, "Two years ago I would have said, 'Thank you for the invitation, but sorry,' but now I am able to say, 'Perhaps,' and that's great progress."

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