Suu Kyi's First Trip Out Of Myanmar Signals New Era

Thousands of migrants from Myanmar turned out to greet opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi during her visit to Thailand. It was her first trip outside Burma for 24 years. Suu Kyi is attending an economic forum in Bangkok, and is also expected to visit refugee camps on the Thai-Burmese border.

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Democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi is in Thailand today. It's the first time she's left Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, in 24 years. She spent much of that time in jail or under house arrest after the country's military rulers voided her party's landslide victory in the 1990 general election. Suu Kyi had been offered trips abroad before but refused, fearing the military would not allow her to return. But with the dizzying pace of political reform in Myanmar, those fears appear to have faded. Michael Sullivan reports on Aung San Suu Kyi's first stop abroad.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Mahachai is about an hour's drive south of the Thai capital, but it seemed a lot more like Myanmar when Aung San Suu Kyi's motorcade pulled up outside the local shrimp market shortly after nine this morning, hundreds of her supporters greeting her like a rock star.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

SULLIVAN: Mae Suu, Mae Suu, they chanted - Mother Suu, Mother Suu. No matter that Suu Kyi never left her car; nobody seemed to care. Many held pictures of her high above their heads, some portraits of Suu Kyi with her father, independence leader Aung San. Mahachai was a good place for the opposition leader to start her world tour. It's home to many of the estimated two and a half million migrants from Myanmar living in Thailand. Many come for economic reasons, some political ones, some come legally, some not. But all of them showed up this morning to show their loyalty, their love for the woman they see as the real leader of their country.

MOE MIN: Aung San Suu Kyi, she can make a good government. She can make a good economy. She can make a good country, I think.

SULLIVAN: That's 30-year-old Moe Min, a construction worker who left Myanmar five years ago, after the brutal 2007 military crackdown on the monk-led Saffron Revolution. Aung San Suu Kyi isn't president, not yet anyway, but he believes so much in the lady and what she can help achieve, he reckons he's probably going back home soon.

MIN: Oh, I think about two years, maybe, we all go to Burma because my country now start develop economy because the lady.

SULLIVAN: He's not the only one who's thinking of returning home. Thirty-two-year-old Ne Wae Ah came here a decade ago to work in the shrimp processing industry. She makes about $10 a day, far more than what she could make back in Myanmar, for now at least. But...

NE WAE AH: (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: I'm confident Aung San Suu Kyi can help all the workers here and in Myanmar too, she says. She says she believes the political reforms in her country and Suu Kyi's presence in parliament will help the economy improve so fast she's thinking about going back next year.

AUNG SAN SUU KYI: (Foreign language spoken)

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

SULLIVAN: Later in the morning, in her first speech abroad in more than two decades, Aung San Suu Kyi told a crowd packed into a sweltering side street that she promised to do her best for them and for Myanmar. And she delighted many when she told the crowd there are so many of you here, I feel like I'm in my own country. She will have a chance to see many more of her compatriots when she visits a refugee camp on the Thai-Burmese border later this week; a trip that will serve as a reminder that there are still many obstacles facing Myanmar as it tries to move forward with political and economic reform and development while trying to satisfy the demands of the country's ethnic minorities, some of whose militias have been fighting Myanmar's military for decades, demanding greater autonomy from the central government.

Atrocities committed by both sides over the years have driven many civilians seeking shelter across the border into Thailand. Convincing them that it's safe to return would be difficult for anyone, even Aung San Suu Kyi. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Bangkok.

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