YANGON: Myanmar prisoner-turned-parliamentarian Aung San Suu Kyi set off yesterday on a tour of Europe almost certain to attract the kind of fanfare that will test the patience of the reformist generals now in power after decades of army rule.
The hugely popular Nobel Peace laureate will take in five countries – Switzerland, Norway, Britain, Ireland and France – on a 17-day tour almost certain to wrest the international spotlight away from the astonishing reforms vaunted by Myanmar’s once-vilified leaders.
Suu Kyi’s European sojourn, her second trip outside Myanmar in almost a quarter of a century, would have been unimaginable 19 months ago, when an authoritarian junta ruled Myanmar and confined her to her home.
“I’m excited about each country in a different way,” the 66-year-old said yesterday before her departure from Yangon airport. “I’ll get to know this only when I get there.”
The cameras and elaborate flower bouquets that greeted Suu Kyi at the airport are a taste of the attention that will shower upon her in Europe, a welcome more fit for a head of state than an opposition parliamentarian – a fact that could strain fragile but cordial ties with President Thein Sein and anger conservatives among the old military guard.
“There’s always the risk that tensions may arise, whether from Thein Sein or people in the military,” said Christopher Roberts, an expert on Southeast Asian politics at the Australian National University.
“Once you open the gates and things change, you can’t close them or stop them at a certain point. There might be some out there who are worried about this.”
Under the junta whose rule Suu Kyi fought against for two decades, she passed up opportunities to leave Myanmar in fear the generals threatened by her influence would block her return.
But after months of cautious rapprochement with Thein Sein, a former general who convinced her to run for parliament in April by-elections, Suu Kyi accepted an offer to go to Thailand to attend the World Economic Forum on East Asia in one of the clearest signs yet of her confidence in Myanmar’s reforms.
She received a messianic reception during her five days in Thailand. Photographs and video footage of jubilant scenes and a rock-star welcome played out across the world as thousands of Myanmar migrant workers and refugees swarmed for a glimpse of a woman they affectionately call “Mother Suu”.
Thein Sein cancelled his trip to the same forum soon after Suu Kyi confirmed her attendance, igniting speculation the president feared being upstaged. The belated response from his office was that he had pressing matters at home.
He rescheduled his Thailand visit to the day after Suu Kyi left, but abruptly postponed again, just hours after she addressed the forum and warned against “reckless optimism” over the reforms, which the president has spearheaded.
While praising Thein Sein, she also said she was still unsure of the rest of his government and whether the military was fully committed to democracy.
Four days later, in a state newspaper long seen as a government mouthpiece, an opinion piece said Suu Kyi and Thein Sein had a “mutual agreement to set aside differences” for the good of the country, the future of which “depends completely on their cooperation”.
The author said he feared a “golden opportunity” could be lost.
The soft-spoken and reclusive Thein Sein has made no official comment on Suu Kyi’s trips. In Europe, Suu Kyi, whose father led Myanmar’s campaign for independence from British rule, will address the International Labour Organisation’s conference in Geneva and the British parliament in London. She will also give an acceptance speech in Oslo for the Nobel Peace Prize she won in 1991.
A birthday party will be held for her in London and she will return to Oxford University, which she attended in the 1970s, to receive an honorary doctorate. In Dublin, she will receive an award from Amnesty International, which has arranged a concert for her which will include Bono.
If the Thailand trip was anything to go by, Thein Sein and the retired soldiers in his cabinet should be braced for similar fanfare and more of Suu Kyi’s robust rhetoric when she touches down.
“She realises she needs to work with the government, but she’ll still stand up and speak out about the important issues,” added Roberts. “Those comments are sure to rattle some people.”