Airport security crowded the fast-track immigration section at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport on the evening of May 29. Thailand’s Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra had arrived home shortly before from a trip to Australia. But the throngs of excited onlookers were not there to greet Thailand’s first female Prime Minister, who was on her way back from meeting Australia’s own first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard. Instead, they had gathered after word trickled out that another lady leader had touched down in Bangkok. Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s iconic opposition leader, was making her first trip overseas in 24 years. Under house arrest for much of that time at the behest of the country’s then ruling generals, Suu Kyi had traded a globe-trotting youth — spent in India, England, the U.S., Bhutan and Japan — for the moldering confines of her family’s lakeside villa in Burma’s largest city, Rangoon.
Now, she was negotiating the fluorescent-lit splendor of Bangkok’s gleaming airport. Clutching a new red passport that had been issued by the quasi-civilian government that took over the country officially known as Myanmar last year, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate smiled briefly as she received her first entry stamp in nearly a quarter-century. Airport porters snapped photos with their cell phones, while even harried-looking businessmen from a flight from Hong Kong seemed charmed. “That Burmese lady is here,” one said into his iPhone, excitedly. “You know, what’s her name.”
Possessed of a finely attuned wit, Suu Kyi has joked that she is known overseas as “the woman with the unpronounceable name.” That may be. But Suu Kyi (her full name is pronounced Ahng Sahn Sue Chee) is also the world’s most famous female democracy activist. She is in Bangkok to attend the World Economic Forum on East Asia, where she will appear on a panel about Asian women on Friday. After the military regime that had ruled Burma for nearly half a century began devolving power to a semicivilian government, Suu Kyi made the unprecedented step of involving her political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), in April by-elections. The last time the NLD participated in electoral politics back in 1990, it won by a landslide. But the junta ignored the results. This time around, the NLD won 43 of 45 seats, and the new hybrid military-civilian government honored the results. Suu Kyi is now a member of the Burmese parliament.
It’s a sea change for a woman who was cloistered for so long. On the campaign trail, Suu Kyi proved a tireless, charismatic politician, always taking care to smile and wave at the thousands of supporters who gathered wherever she went. But there is also a natural reserve to the 66-year-old, an almost royal remove perhaps borne of her family background. The daughter of Burma’s independence hero Aung San, Suu Kyi was only 2 when her father was assassinated by political rivals. She grew up largely overseas, as her mother served as the fledgling nation’s ambassador to India. Even Suu Kyi’s path to politics was unexpected. Back in Burma to take care of her ailing mother, she happened to be there when mass democracy protests and an ensuing brutal crackdown convulsed Rangoon in 1988. She had not left home since then, until her May 29 arrival in Bangkok. When her English husband was stricken by cancer in Oxford in 1999, she made the heart-wrenching choice not to visit him at his deathbed, lest Burma’s junta refuse to let her return home.
Now that she has her passport and the confidence that she can travel freely, Suu Kyi has a busy summer of globe-trotting ahead of her. On her birthday on June 17, she will be in England, where one of her two sons lives. (Suu Kyi studied at Oxford, and her husband, an academic of Himalayan culture, is buried there.) She will address the International Labor Organization in Switzerland. A trip to Norway to receive her 1991 Peace Prize is also planned.
Most immediately this week, Suu Kyi is scheduled to visit a Burmese refugee camp in Thailand. Tens of thousands of Burmese, particularly members of the country’s ethnic minorities, have flooded neighboring Thailand over the decades to escape government repression and civil war. Other Burmese are economic refugees who occupy some of the lowest rungs of the social ladder in Thailand, working construction or seafood-processing jobs that make them prone to abuse because of their questionable immigration status. Suu Kyi is expected to meet with Burmese migrant workers in Thailand as well.
Suu Kyi’s trips — whether to a Burmese refugee camp in Thailand or, as rumored, to a Dublin stage shared with U2 rocker and philanthropist Bono — will undoubtedly garner intense global interest. Media scrums will follow her everywhere. Even at the Bangkok airport, Suu Kyi looked exhausted, though elegant, as she gamely grinned for the impromptu crowds of fans. (I happened to be on another flight arriving in Bangkok at the same time.) For a woman who told me in Rangoon that she cherishes her time alone and who suffers from motion sickness, Suu Kyi’s re-entry into the world will be a shock. Bangkok is a particularly exuberant, traffic-choked metropolis compared with the city where she has lived for 24 years. As Suu Kyi exited the air-conditioned airport into the moist heat of the Thai capital, the flashes of hundreds of cameras erupted in a frenzied burst. A flock of Burmese yelled, “Mother Suu.” She paused for a second, smiled and waved, then strode on.