Aung San Suu Kyi

Suu Kyi's jaunt is truly historic moment

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 May, 2012, 12:00am


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For any outsiders still doubting the reality of reform in Myanmar - for decades one of the region's most isolated nations - Aung San Suu Kyi's flight this week from Yangon to Bangkok in neighbouring Thailand should be seen as a historic sign that significant change is indeed underway.

It is a brief flight - a little over an hour - yet by taking it, the once-repressed icon of Myanmese freedom will travel light years from her former days under house arrest in her rambling mansion, cut off from her two sons and her husband, not to mention the outside world.

She is expected to travel to Bangkok as early as tomorrow to speak at a World Economic Forum gathering later this week - amid uncertainty over whether Myanmese President Thein Sein, whom Suu Kyi has come to trust like no other from the old regime, will also appear. Her minders have issued few other details, but she is also expected to appear at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand and visit a refugee camp.

A forerunner to a longer jaunt to Switzerland, Britain and Norway next month, it is the first time the 66-year-old will have left Myanmar since 1988. That year she returned to the country to nurse her sick mother, only to be swept along in national uprisings. Placed under house arrest for the first time a year later, she was unable to campaign in the 1990 elections. Her National League for Democracy won in a landslide, but the military junta never allowed them to take power.

While the European trip will make more headlines - she is returning to Oxford University, her alma mater, and will address both houses of the British parliament before going to Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize she was awarded in 1991- her first trip this week has historic resonance. Yangon-based envoys are describing it as a step as significant as her election last month to the country's fledgling parliament and the release of hundreds of political prisoners.

'Above all else, it is a sign of the trust and faith that now exist between Suu Kyi and her movement and the government, for all the fragility of reforms,' said one veteran Asian diplomat. 'For her to actually leave the country was, for so many years, the ultimate risk.'

The irony, of course, is that, in theory, Suu Kyi could have made the journey at any time during those long years of darkness. The military regime would have loved nothing more than for her to ask to leave - something she feared would have sparked an intense crackdown on those not already in prison. She was, after all, only under house arrest, not in jail.

As her most recent biographer, Peter Popham, writes in The Lady and the Peacock: 'At any time during her years of confinement ... she could have phoned her contact in the regime ... taken a taxi to the airport and flown away; but it would have been with the certainty, if she did, that her passport would have been cancelled and that she would have never have been permitted to return.'

That, Popham noted, 'would have vindicated all the slurs of her enemies,' adding the regime came to 'torture' Suu Kyi over her choice.

She considered leaving in 1999 when her husband, Michael Aris, was terminally ill in the UK, but they both decided she should stay. Not only did the generals refuse Aris permission to visit, but they pumped out propaganda urging her to go to his bedside to fulfil her duties as a wife.

Ordinary Myanmese talk often of her sacrifices and insist people have a deep understanding of what she forewent over so many years in her bid to free her nation from military rule. 'It is simply wonderful that Suu Kyi feels she can leave at last,' said Yangon accountant Win Tin. 'It is still hard to imagine that it can really happen ... I only pray she will be allowed to return. The exit stamp in her passport is history, we say, but the entry stamp will represent the future.'