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Suu Kyi Thailand Visit Stirs Excitement Among Burma Exiles

Burma's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi touches the hands of her supporters as she arrives to attend the opening ceremony of her National League for Democracy (NLD) party's branch office in Yangon, May 23, 2012.
Burma's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi touches the hands of her supporters as she arrives to attend the opening ceremony of her National League for Democracy (NLD) party's branch office in Yangon, May 23, 2012.
BANGKOK - Burma’s opposition said leader Aung San Suu Kyi next week will take her first trip outside the country since 1988. The National League for Democracy said she will attend the World Economic Forum in Bangkok ahead of a tour of Europe. Thailand hosts a large community of Burmese activists and exiles and they are quite excited about her trip.

NLD spokesman Nyan Win on Friday said Aung San Suu Kyi will arrive in Bangkok mid-week. He said the democracy leader will meet Tuesday morning in Burma with the visiting Indian prime minister. She will leave for Bangkok either that evening or on Wednesday.

24 years

The trip will mark the first time the democracy leader has left Burma in 24 years, when she returned to the country to visit her ailing mother and became swept up in the country’s politics.

She planned to first travel to Europe, but the change in schedule is being welcomed by the large Burma activist and exile community in Thailand.

“It is indeed a significant visit of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi because on her first visit after so many years it is one of the countries in Southeast Asia,” said Soe Aung, a spokesman of the Forum for Democracy in Burma.

Aung San Suu Kyi was locked up for challenging the military that ruled Burma for decades.

On the rare occasions she was released from custody she chose not to leave Burma because she was afraid authorities would not let her return.

She missed being with her British husband when he was dying from cancer and seeing her children grow up.


Aung San Suu Kyi was released just days after Burma held its first election in 20 years, replacing overt military rule with a civilian face.

President Thein Sein, himself a former general, surprised critics by meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi, loosening censorship and releasing hundreds of political prisoners.

Western governments responded by easing economic and diplomatic sanctions leading to a new era of engagement with Burma.

And now, Aung San Suu Kyi trusts the government enough to travel and end her long stay inside Burma.

Mixed feelings

But Thailand-based activists worry the excitement about positive change and economic opportunity in Burma will overshadow remaining problems.

Bo Kyi, with the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners Burma, regrets that the hundreds more remaining political prisoners in jail are no longer a priority.

“The release of the remaining political prisoners is [the] key issue," said Bo. "International community or international government’s leaders should not forget the remaining political prisoners in Burma.”

Burma authorities refuse to acknowledge the existence of political prisoners.

Ethnic fighting

Activists worry ongoing fighting in ethnic minority areas is also being forgotten.Years of military abuses in fighting against ethnic rebels forced tens of thousands of minorities to flee to refugee camps in Thailand.

Soe Aung said he hopes Aung San Suu Kyi will be able to visit the camps during her visit.

“These ethnic people have long long time suffering for so many years with many difficulties," said Soe. "And, she should also urge the international community not just looking into the development inside the country but also continue with the assistance of these refugees, ethnic refugees, along the Thailand-Burma border and the organizations who are working to help these refugees.”

The NLD won Burma’s only previous election, in 1990, but the military refused to give up power.

It arrested NLD leaders and activists and many fled to India, Thailand and the United States where they formed a government in exile.

Zin Linn is a spokesman for the exile government in Thailand. He said they are excited about Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit but not likely able to meet her because legally they are an “unlawful association.”

“If the situation is possible, or if there may be some ‘green light’, we can say we might see her. Because, in this trip I think not only her and also President Thein Sein will be attend this economic forum," Zin Linn said. "So, we have to take care of the situation. We didn’t want her hurt because of our meeting.”

World Economic Forum

Thai media said, while in Thailand, Aung San Suu Kyi will meet with Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

The NLD spokesman did not confirm the meeting, but said in Bangkok the democracy leader will attend the World Economic Forum on East Asia.

Burma’s President Thein Sein is also scheduled to speak at the forum but it is not clear if he will meet with Aung San Suu Kyi.

In June, Aung San Suu Kyi in June will travel to Europe for a series of appearances including a trip to Norway to receive the Nobel peace prize she was awarded while under house arrest.