Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi will meet U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and address Parliament in London today during her first visit to Britain since 1988.
Suu Kyi, who was kept under house arrest for 15 of the past 20 years by Myanmar’s military government, became a lawmaker in her country last month, a sign that it is opening up after decades of dictatorship. Her decision to travel is another such indication. For years she refused, even in 1999 when her husband, Michael, was dying in England, fearing that if she left Myanmar she wouldn’t be allowed to return.
Cameron visited Suu Kyi in Myanmar in April and announced moves to lift sanctions on the Southeast Asian nation. The U.K. premier has proposed that aid to the country should be linked to democratic development and that a commission should establish guidelines for investing there, according to his office.
“What we want to achieve is that path to democracy,” Cameron told reporters at a joint press conference in London with Suu Kyi today. “That means encouraging them on the road to reform.”
Cameron pledged 3 million pounds ($4.7 million) in aid for Myanmar and has invited its president, Thein Sein, to visit the U.K. later this year. Suu Kyi said she supported this move. “We don’t want to be shackle by the past,” she said. She asked for help building Myanmar’s civil service.
Myanmar’s political opening over the past year has put the nation back on the map for investors. In addition to the EU’s suspension of sanctions, the U.S. said last month it will lift economic and financial restrictions on certain sectors of Myanmar’s economy and Japan forgave about $3.7 billion of debt.
The invitation to address both houses of Britain’s legislature is an honor that’s normally reserved for heads of state or government, such as Barack Obama in May 2011. The only other woman to have done so is Queen Elizabeth II. Suu Kyi speaks at 3 p.m. in the 11th-century Westminster Hall, the oldest part of the Parliament complex. Earlier she met the heir to the British throne, Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, at the couple’s London residence.
Yesterday, Suu Kyi received an honorary doctorate from Oxford University in advanced civil law. She had lived in England in the 1980s with her husband, Tibetan scholar Michael Aris, and two sons, returning to Myanmar in 1988 when her mother fell ill. She became involved in uprisings against the authorities and was placed under house arrest the following year.
In 1990, the military rejected an election victory by Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party in which it won about 80 percent of seats for a committee to draft a new constitution. Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner known in Myanmar simply as “The Lady,” was detained during both that vote and elections in 2010.
Since taking office in March 2011, Thein Sein has freed political prisoners, sought peace deals with ethnic armies, dismantled a fixed exchange rate that distorted government revenue and halted the construction of a $3.6 billion Chinese-backed hydropower project in response to criticism China was exploiting Burmese resources. He also met with Suu Kyi and convinced her party to rejoin the political process after boycotting the 2010 elections.
Her party is pushing to change the current constitution, which guarantees the military a quarter of parliamentary seats.
On June 19 Suu Kyi visited the British Broadcasting Corp., thanking its World Service radio channel for “keeping her in touch” during her years of house arrest. During the visit she met she met former Radio 1 disc jockey Dave Lee Travis, known as the “Hairy Cornflake,” whose show she said she enjoyed while a prisoner.
Asked by journalists today about her struggle for democracy, Suu Kyi played down her own hardships. “I don’t think I’ve made any sacrifices,” she said. “The only thing I feel I’m sacrificing here in Britain is sleep.”