By Selah Hennessy
Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi asked for practical help in completing Burma’s journey towards democracy, during a high-profile visit to London’s Westminster Hall. The Nobel laureate addressed both houses of Britain’s parliament.
Aung San Suu Kyi said Burma must grasp the opportunity it has for democracy. “It is an opportunity for which we have waited many decades,” she said. “If we do not use this opportunity, if we do not get things right this time round, it may be several decades more before a similar opportunity arises again.”
The Nobel laureate spoke at Westminster Hall, the 11th century venue typically reserved for heads of state. But it was a fitting setting for a woman widely respected in Europe as a human rights icon.
She told the audience of about 2,000 people that Burma is still fragile, but said she hopes it is at the start of a journey towards a better future.
Aung San Suu Kyi commended the reforms taking place under President Thein Sein, but said “without strong institutions, the process will not be sustainable.”
She called on Britain to consider what it can do to help build the institutions needed to support the country’s parliamentary democracy.
In a sign that the bonds between Britain and Burma are deepening, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced Burma’s president, Thein Sein, has also been invited to visit Britain.
During a joint news conference with Suu Kyi, Cameron warned of the challenges ahead.
“Just as it was wrong to give in to despair when things were going badly,” said the British prime minister. “So I think you are absolutely right to warn now against reckless optimism that a happier era may be in prospect. We will remain vigorous and rigorous in our questioning until we have made those changes irreversible.”
Military rule ended in Burma last year and reforms have begun to take effect. Suu Kyi lived under house arrest for most of the past two decades, but was released in 2010. Her trip to Europe highlights how her popularity has grown in the intervening years.
In Switzerland she addressed the International Labor Organization; in Norway she officially accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, which she was awarded in 1991; and in Ireland a concert was held in her honor.
In a television interview, the democracy leader said the reception is a sign of “how much the world wants Burma to change in the right direction.” She also said she does not view her new position as a perilous one.
“I think of it as a challenge. It’s a challenge not just to me and my party, but it’s a challenge to the government as well, and of course to the people in general, because they must play their part,” said Suu Kyi.
Burmese activist Maung Zarni told VOA that Aung San Suu Kyi’s popularity in Europe is good for democracy in Burma.
“She is very conscious of the fact that she has received this overwhelming support and welcome in Europe and around the world, but she is using that to call attention to the pervasive human-rights and other problems in the country.”
With the ear of European politicians, Aung San Suu Kyi says she hopes to gain their support in building Burma’s future.