Myanmar democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi became the first non-head of state to address both houses of Britain’s parliament on Thursday in a rare honor she used to ask for help in bringing democracy to the former British colony.
Cutting a tiny figure in parliament’s cavernous and historic Westminster Hall, the 67-year-old Nobel Peace laureate and opposition leader received a standing ovation on arrival, introduced as “the conscience of a country and a heroine for humanity.”
“We have an opportunity to reestablish true democracy in Burma. It is an opportunity for which we have waited decades,” she told a forum previously reserved for world leaders such as former South African president Nelson Mandela and US President Barack Obama.
“If we do not get things right this time right round, it may be several decades more before a similar opportunity arises again,” she said.
Aung San Suu Kyi, only the second woman to address both houses of parliament after Queen Elizabeth, is in Britain as part of a 17-day tour of Europe.
On Wednesday, she returned to Oxford, where she once lived with her late husband and two sons before returning to Myanmar, also known as Burma, in 1988. The visit, to care for her mother, was supposed to be brief, but Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of assassinated Burmese independence hero Aung San, was swept into her country’s political chaos as the military crushed protests.
The Oxford graduate spent 15 of the next 24 years under house arrest.
During army rule, Aung San Suu Kyi refused offers allowing her to leave the country for fear she would not be allowed to return, costing her the chance to see her children grow up and also the opportunity to be with her husband, Michael Aris, before he died of cancer in 1999.
After nearly half a century of direct military rule, the junta last year gave way to a quasi-civilian government stuffed with former generals and since then current President Thein Sein has startled the world with his appetite for reforms.
Thein Sein, a former general, has eased media censorship, released political prisoners and signed peace agreements with ethnic rebels — moves unthinkable just a year earlier.
Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in November 2010 and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party dominated April by-elections, threatening the military-backed ruling party ahead of a general election in 2015.
British Prime Minister David Cameron earlier on Thursday said Thein Sein would visit London in the coming months for talks on reform, a move Aung San Suu Kyi said she supported despite the president’s background in Myanmar’s former junta.
“I think it’s right to invite him. Because we don’t want to be shackled by the past. We want to use the past to build a happier future,” she said.
The reforms have earned Myanmar the suspension of some US and EU sanctions, but Aung San Suu Kyi has urged scepticism and called on the West to act as “watchdogs” to guard against government reversals on the path to democracy.
Aung San Suu Kyi was sworn into Myanmar’s parliament last month, but she told the audience at Westminster she wished it was less formal and more like Britain’s raucous parliamentary system.
“Men are required to wear formal headgear. There is certainly no heckling. I would wish that over time, perhaps, we will reflect the liveliness and relative informality of Westminster,” she said, sparking laughter from her audience.