Aung San Suu Kyi: from prisoner to global politician
Emerging from two decades of imprisonment and personal sacrifice, Myanmar's democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi is finally making her debut on the world stage as an elected politician.
Tuesday 29 May 2012, 09:44PM
It is a remarkable development for the Nobel laureate, who burst onto Myanmar's political scene in the late 1980s but was kept as a prisoner in her own home by the country's generals for most of the past 22 years.
Suu Kyi's struggle against dictatorship brought her international fame, but concerns that she would never be allowed to return saw her refuse to travel abroad even when her dying husband was denied a visa to visit her.
Her first forays overseas in 24 years, with visits to Thailand and Europe scheduled, are the latest sign of confidence from the veteran activist, who was elected to parliament in April in the culmination of dramatic reforms introduced since direct army rule ended last year.
The opposition leader, who attracted huge crowds on the campaign trail, has shown that her appeal within Myanmar was undimmed by the years under house arrest in her crumbling Yangon mansion.
Suu Kyi has taken an increasingly global role as Myanmar sheds its pariah status, meeting top world dignitaries in Yangon and encouraging an easing of Western economic sanctions.
Foreign travel will give her greater access to a global community eager to see her in person and allow her to meet ordinary people as well as world leaders.
Suu Kyi, released from seven straight years of house arrest just days after controversial November 2010 elections that were dismissed as a sham by the West, was issued with a passport soon after winning her parliamentary seat.
Her European travel plans include a trip to an International Labour Organization conference in Geneva on June 14, followed two days later by a long-delayed visit to Oslo to make her acceptance speech for winning the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize.
She also intends to travel to Britain, where she lived for years with her family, and has been given the rare honour of addressing the country's parliament.
Suu Kyi's move to mainstream politics is the latest chapter in the life of a woman who was thrust into the role of national heroine almost by accident.
The daughter of Myanmar's independence hero General Aung San left her homeland as a child and studied in Britain before marrying British academic Michael Aris, with whom she had two sons.
But when she returned to Yangon in 1988 to nurse her sick mother, protests erupted against the military, which ended with a brutal crackdown that left at least 3,000 people dead.
She proved to be a charismatic orator and took a leading role in the pro-democracy movement, delivering speeches to crowds of hundreds of thousands.
Alarmed by the support she commanded, the generals ordered her first stint of house arrest in 1989.
However, she remained a figurehead for the National League for Democracy, which swept 1990 elections by a landslide but was never allowed to take power.
A year later she won the Nobel, elevating her to a profile similar to that enjoyed by Nelson Mandela as one of the world's leading voices against tyranny.
Yet her struggle for her country has come at a high personal cost: Suu Kyi was unable to see Aris before his death from cancer in 1999.
She has yet to define her new position in Myanmar, although she has ruled out joining the government of President Thein Sein, a former general credited with initiating reforms.
"There is a big question about what kind of role she will play politically in the parliament as the leader of the main opposition party," said Trevor Wilson, a visiting fellow at the Australian National University.
Suu Kyi herself Thursday voiced caution about Myanmar's changes, saying reforms had started to "bear buds" but not yet yield fruit, in a video message to the graduating class of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.