Myanmar's Suu Kyi visits London, Oxford on UK tour

June 19, 2012 - 12:07 PM
Norway Suu Kyi European Tour

Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi arrives to attend a conference at the Oslo Forum at the Losby Gods mansion about 13 kilometers (8 miles) east of Oslo, Monday, June 18, 2012. The Oslo Forum is a n international network of armed conflict mediation practitioners. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

LONDON (AP) — Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi celebrated her 67th birthday Tuesday at the start of a week-long visit to Britain, telling hundreds of students and academics that time alone will not heal the wounds of her country.

Suu Kyi's first public event was a debate at the London School of Economics on how Myanmar can move to the rule of law, a reminder of the tough road ahead for the leader of the Southeast Asian country's reform movement.

Suu Kyi told the audience that "time will not heal. There has to be acknowledgment" of the wrongs of the past.

She said that "the progress that we hope to make with regard to democratization and reform depends so much on an understanding of the importance of the rule of law."

"Unless we can amend the constitution to harmonize with the aspirations of all the people in our country, we will never be able to bring about the kind of unity and peace that we all desire," she said.

Suu Kyi, who is on her first overseas trip since 1988, received a standing ovation as she took the stage during the panel discussion. Most in the crowd had come to hear her speak. But she listened intently to the academics and lawyers who appeared alongside her.

Suu Kyi has a long association with Britain, but she has not visited for 24 years. She spent much of that time under house arrest in Myanmar.

On Tuesday Suu Kyi visited BBC radio, whose international broadcasts she has said were a lifeline during her years of isolation.

She traveled to the university city of Oxford, where she studied in the 1960s and later lived for many years with her late husband, Michael Aris, and their two sons. She was greeted by Oxford University Chancellor Chris Patten and a crowd of well-wishers, who burst into a rendition of "Happy Birthday."

Trip organizers said she planned to celebrate her birthday privately with family and friends Tuesday evening.

On Wednesday, Oxford University will present her with an honorary degree that it awarded in 1993 but that she was not free to collect.

On Thursday she will meet Prime Minister David Cameron and address lawmakers in Parliament.

Suu Kyi was kept under house arrest by Myanmar's rulers for 15 years, and was freed in 2010. She decided to visit Europe after the Myanmar government assured her that she will not be blocked from returning home.

She has been to Oslo to pick up the Nobel Peace Prize she was awarded in 1991. During a visit to Dublin she was feted by dignitaries and U2 frontman Bono, a longtime supporter.

The trip has at times had the feel of a triumphal procession, with Suu Kyi greeted rapturously by Burmese expatriates and Western supporters. But it also has underlined the challenges she faces as she moves form opposition figurehead to practical politician. She was released from house arrest in November 2010 and won a seat in the country's national assembly in April.

"She's moved into a completely different phase of her life and her political career, in many ways more problematic," said Suu Kyi biographer Peter Popham. "In many ways she's now on the inside. She can no longer be merely on a pedestal, she has to take decisions that can be right or wrong, criticized justly or unjustly."

In London, Suu Kyi faced questions from the audience about ethnic conflicts along Myanmar's borders with Thailand and Bangladesh, and about how the military can be reformed.

Asked why she did not condemn the military more loudly, Suu Kyi said she condemned all violence — but said that "resolving conflict is not about condemnation."

She acknowledged the difficulties ahead, but said she drew strength from supporters like those in London, where she was presented with a London School of Economics baseball cap and a framed photo of her father, Gen. Aung San, taken in London in 1947. He was assassinated the same year, when his daughter was 2 years old.

"During this journey I have found great warmth and great support from people all over the world," she said. "I think it's all of you and people like you who have given me the strength to continue.

"And I suppose I do have a stubborn streak as well."

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Jill Lawless can be reached at http://Twitter.com/JillLawless