Aung San Suu Kyi kicks off European tour in Switzerland
The Burmese opposition leader and former prisoner of the country's junta, Aung San Suu Kyi, speaks at the United Nations in Geneva. Suu Kyi says a wide range of reforms in her country are needed to make investment attractive. At a press conference she tells of recent sectarian violence in the Rakhine province, and calls for the rule of law to be respected
Aung San Suu Kyi kicks off European tour in Switzerland
Burma's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi will also visit Britain, France, Ireland and Norway during historic 17-day trip
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 14 June 2012 14.05 BST
The Burmese opposition leader and former prisoner of the country's junta, Aung San Suu Kyi, speaks at the United Nations in Geneva Link to this video
Almost a quarter of a century since she last set foot in Europe, the Burmese pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi kicked off a five-country tour in Switzerland on Thursday, welcoming the international community's efforts to strengthen reform in her homeland.
The 66-year-old former political prisoner, kept under house arrest for 15 of the last 22 years, was addressing the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in Geneva, her first engagement in a whirlwind tour certain to elevate further her status as international political celebrity.
Now a member of parliament in Burma, the Nobel peace prize laureate welcomed steps to reach out to her country, which has long been isolated because of its military dictatorship.
Wearing trademark flowers in her hair, "The Lady", as she is known, was given a rapturous welcome by the ILO, an organisation she chose to address because of its long campaign against child and slave labour in Burma.
"The international community is trying very hard to bring my country into it, and it's up to our country to respond the right way," she said.
"Any new investment that comes in because of the lifting or suspension of sanctions should add to the democratic process rather than subtract from it," she later told reporters.
She also urged foreign governments not to allow their companies to form joint ventures with Burma's state-owned oil and gas company until it improved its business practices.
The tour, which also takes in Norway, Ireland, Britain and France, will be the first opportunity for western leaders to analyse Aung San Suu Kyi's transition from prisoner of conscience during years of detention to stateswoman.
The red carpet is being rolled out during the 17-day visit, seen as another milestone in Burma's political progress, under which recent reforms by the Burmese president, Thein Sein, have led to a lifting of sanctions.
Especially emotional for the mother of two will be a return to her "beloved" Oxford, where she studied and later settled with her husband, the academic and Tibetan expert Dr Michael Aris, who died from cancer in 1999 having been refused a visa to visit the wife he had been able to see only five times in the previous 10 years. The couple raised their sons, Alexander, 38, and Kim, 34, in the city and she is due to receive an honorary degree at a ceremony at Oxford University on 20 June.
Another auspicious engagement will be when she addresses both houses of parliament in Westminster Hall on 21 June, an honour that has been accorded in recent times to Nelson Mandela, in 1996, Barack Obama, in 2011, Pope Benedict XVI, in 2010, and the Queen. It has never before been bestowed on the leader of an opposition party.
Ireland will host an Electric Burma concert on 18 June, during which U2 frontman Bono will present Aung San Suu Kyi with the "ambassador of conscience award", Amnesty International's most prestigious honour.
The show will also feature Sir Bob Geldof and the Riverdance troupe. "To be allowed to honour this woman is an honour in itself. The heroine of dignity, integrity, courage and steely moral vigour lost her freedom and her family in order to gain a nation. Ireland is ennobled by her visit," Geldof said.
Bono has reportedly lent Aung San Suu Kyi his private jet to fly her to Ireland from Oslo, where she will finally give her acceptance speech on Saturday, 21 years after being awarded the Nobel peace prize and lauded as "an extraordinary example of civil courage" and "important symbol in the struggle against oppression".
It was accepted by her son, Alexander, then 18, who received a standing ovation when he said his mother had accepted it "in the name of all the people of Burma". His voice trembled as he spoke of his wish that soon she would be able to "speak directly for herself, instead of through me".
More than two decades later, that moment is poised to be one of the tour's highlights. The head of the Nobel committee, Thorbjørn Jagland, said her acceptance speech "will be one of the most historic events in Nobel peace prize history".
The European tour is only the second time Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of General Aung San, regarded as the founder of modern Burma and who was assassinated when she was two, has left the country since she returned to nurse her dying mother in 1988. She recently attended the World Economic Forum for East Asia in Bangkok.
Her passport has only recently been returned since she was deemed a threat to the ruling military junta, when she emerged as a unifying symbol of a free Burma during the 1988 pro-democracy uprisings that were brutally quashed by a harsh military regime.
She was forced to spend long, lonely years incarcerated in her dilapidated lakeside villa in Rangoon, now Yangon. Though at times free to leave the country, she never did amid fears she would be refused re-entry.
Among her lifelines were a piano and the BBC World Service - she had a special fondness for Dave Lee Travis's music programme, and the DJ hopes to meet her during her UK visit.
Her sacrifice - staying even as her husband was dying in England, unable to see her sons - has earned her iconic status comparable with Mandela.
Her campaign for non-violent opposition, which gained her the "Steel Butterfly" soubriquet, saw her receive her an array of human rights awards and gain a high-profile that has afforded her some protection.
Aung San Suu Kyi was released from her last period of house arrest in November 2010, and in April this year won a seat in the lower house of the Burmese parliament.
Her visit comes as her government struggles to contain sectarian violence in western Burma between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, which has claimed at least 21 lives since Friday.