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Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi called on Britain and other western powers to help her country build democracy after half a century of military rule.
“My country today stands at the start of a journey towards, I hope, a better future,” she told lawmakers from both houses of the U.K. Parliament in London yesterday. “So many hills remain to be climbed, chasms to be bridged. The support of the people of Britain and the people around the world can get us so much further.”
Suu Kyi was elected to parliament last month after spending 15 years under house arrest, prompting the U.S. and European Union to ease sanctions as the country transitions to democracy. The invitation to address both houses of Britain’s legislature is an honor normally reserved for heads of state or government, such as U.S. President Barack Obama in May 2011. The only other woman to have done so is Queen Elizabeth II.
For years Suu Kyi, 67, refused to travel, even in 1999 when her husband Michael Aris was dying in England, fearing that if she left Myanmar she wouldn’t be allowed to return. It was her first visit to Britain since 1988.
“If we do not get things right this time around, it may be several decades more before a similar opportunity arises again,” she said.
Suu Kyi spoke in the 11th-century Westminster Hall, the oldest part of the Parliament complex. Earlier, she met the heir to the British throne, Prince Charles, and his wife, Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, at the couple’s London residence.
Wearing a striped purple longyi, the traditional Burmese sarong, with a white rose tied in her dark hair, she received a standing ovation from lawmakers following her speech.
In 1990, Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party won a landslide victory in a vote for an assembly to draft a new constitution. The military ignored the results, a move that drew the condemnation of Western nations and, along with subsequent human rights abuses, triggered economic sanctions.
Myanmar, strategically sandwiched between the world’s two emerging giants, China and India, is rich in natural resources. These include proven reserves of natural gas, mines that are potentially the world’s greatest source of high-quality rubies and jadeite jade.
Suu Kyi, who refers to her country as Burma, says that while Myanmar may one day be open for business, investment should also benefit its people. Short-term gains shouldn’t be allowed to take precedence over “democracy-friendly investment,” she said.
Prime Minister David Cameron said yesterday the U.K. will invest 3 million pounds ($4.7 million) in peace-building work to address continuing violence in Burma, and increase support for education, health care, business and the rule of law.
Cameron visited Suu Kyi in April and announced moves to lift sanctions on the Southeast Asian nation. The U.K. premier has proposed that aid to the country should be linked to democratic development and that a commission should establish guidelines for investing there, according to his office.
“What we want to achieve is that path to democracy,” Cameron told reporters at a joint press conference in London with Suu Kyi yesterday. “That means encouraging them on the road to reform.”
Cameron has invited Myanmar President Thein Sein to visit the U.K. later this year. Suu Kyi said she supported this move. “We don’t want to be shackled by the past,” she said at a news conference ahead of her speech.
Myanmar’s political opening over the past year has put the nation back on the map for investors. In addition to the EU’s suspension of sanctions, the U.S. said it will lift economic and financial restrictions on certain sectors of Myanmar’s economy and Japan forgave about $3.7 billion of debt.
Two days ago, Suu Kyi received an honorary doctorate from Oxford University in advanced civil law. She had lived in England in the 1980s with her husband, Tibetan scholar Michael and two sons, returning to Myanmar in 1988 when her mother fell ill. She became involved in uprisings against the authorities and was placed under house arrest the following year.
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