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The Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi returns to Europe tomorrow after a 24-year absence. The journey will take her to Oxford, England, where she lived until 1988. That was before she became an icon of nonviolent political protest, and before Burma's military rulers renamed the country Myanmar. Suu Kyi's trip comes as she makes the difficult transition from protest leader to politician, and as sectarian violence threatens her country's fledgling democratic reforms.
NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Yangon.
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: At the headquarters of Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy, spokesman U Nyan Win says that Suu Kyi is busy at the moment writing speeches. She'll deliver one in Oslo as a belated acceptance speech for the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize she was unable to collect while under house arrest. She'll give another one as one of the few non-heads of state to address both Houses of Parliament in London. And she'll thank her many international supporters.
U NYAN WIN: (Through Translator) The NLD has stood firm for more than 20 years, thanks in part to international support. We are stronger and more confident because of it. Lately, we have been trying to reform our party and we hope to hold a party congress later this year. This is a very crucial time for the party, and The Lady needs the moral support of the international community.
KUHN: Suu Kyi, or as everyone here calls her, The Lady, recently reminded foreign supporters not to get too euphoric yet about her country's democratic reforms. And she added that Burmese themselves will have to shoulder most of the burden of building their own democracy.
AUNG SAN SUU KYI: I believe that sanctions have had great effect, politically. If they had not had such effect, the government of Burma would not have been so eager to have them removed. But in the ultimate analysis, we depend neither on sanctions nor the other external factors for real change in our countries. We depend on ourselves.
KUHN: For now, domestic attention in Myanmar is focused not on Suu Kyi's travels but on ethnic and sectarian violence in Rakhine State, which borders on Bangladesh. Reports last month that Muslims had raped and murdered a Buddhist girl set off waves of mob violence and revenge killings.
(SOUNDBITE OF YELLING)
KUHN: Over the weekend, Buddhists marched around Yangon's Shwedagon Pagoda, calling for the government to enforce immigration laws and protect them from what they consider illegal Rohingya and Bengali immigrants.
Activist Kyaw Minn Khing addressed the crowd.
KYWA MINN KHING: (Through Translator) The extremist Bengali illegal immigrants have killed residents and burned down many villages in northern Rakhine State. We call on the government to send more troops to protect the residents.
KUHN: Meanwhile, Suu Kyi is trying to build the NLD from a protest movement into a political party that can win the 2015 general election. The former ruling junta would not allow her to build party institutions, so the NLD has been completely dependent on person - her.
Ko Ko Gyi, a former student leader during the 1988 pro-democracy movement, explains.
KO KO GYI: This is very natural for the transitional period. Because of the longtime oppression, we have lack of experience about democratization. So that's why for the time being, just depend on the person. We cannot avoid.
KUHN: Next week, Suu Kyi turns 67. Most NLD leaders are in their 70's or 80's. The NLD is trying to restructure itself to become younger and more democratic. But they have not invited Ko Ko Gyi and his fellow activists to join them. Ko Ko Gyi refers to her using the honorific title Daw.
GYI: I think Daw San Suu Kyi will consider deeply about the reform, and how to deal with the younger generations. I hope so.
KUHN: Eighty-two-year-old U Win Tin founded the NLD in 1988 with Aung San Suu Kyi. He's optimistic that the reorganization of the party will breathe new life into it.
U WIN TIN: I hope this year we will be well-organized and youthful and very active party.
KUHN: For now, U Win Tin soldiers on, still editing the NLD's newsletter and dealing with the growing number of reporters beating a path to The Lady's door.
Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Yangon.