BANGKOK, Thailand -- Burma's Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi arrived in Bangkok on Tuesday (May 29), the first time since 1988 that she has been out of her country where she suffered more than 15 of house arrest before being elected to parliament in April.

Mrs. Suu Kyi chose next-door Thailand for her first trip because the two Buddhist-majority countries enjoy close business and political links, and she wanted attend the Wednesday (May 30) opening of the World Economic Forum on East Asia in Bangkok and address the group on Friday (June 1).

She experienced culture shock after leaving her relatively shabby and undeveloped hometown Rangoon -- also known as Yangon -- and seeing Bangkok which is a rapidly modernizing, skyscraper-studded megalopolis.

Unlike Rangoon, Bangkok boasts public monorail transportation, extensive Wi-Fi, sprawling shopping malls and other features of a globalized economy.

During the next several days, she will meet Thailand's first female prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, who is a former business executive anxious to improve political and economic relations between the two countries.

Bangkok wants Burma -- also known as Myanmar -- to help halt large-scale illegal drug production which results in millions of methamphetamines each year being smuggled into Thailand.

Mrs. Suu Kyi's tour includes meetings with Burmese migrant workers in an industrial area near Bangkok and Burmese refugees who live in rustic camps along the border.

She is also meeting Burmese dissidents and other self-exiles based in Thailand who have campaigned to free her and hundreds of other political prisoners during decades of media-related activity often funded by U.S. taxpayers.

"However, Amnesty International believes that hundreds of political prisoners remain behind bars in Myanmar," London-based Amnesty International said on Saturday (May 26).

Mrs. Suu Kyi may visit a medical clinic on the Thai side of the border run by Burmese who treat victims of Burma's military assaults and rebel wars, malaria and other woes.

Burma is grappling with several smoldering guerrilla wars fought by ethnic minorities which have caused more than 100,000 refugees to seek shelter in Thailand.

Mrs. Suu Kyi is tentatively scheduled to return on June 3 to Burma, which is mainland Southeast Asia's biggest country, and where the military has unleashed an offensive against the ethnic Kachin tribe in the north.

About 20,000 Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) guerrillas, many of whom are Christian, are fighting for autonomy or independence in their resource-rich zone along the border with China, which wants to build a pipeline through the region to extract natural gas from the Bay of Bengal.

Kachin state also possesses lucrative jade mines, timber and water resources which have attracted Chinese companies and hydropower dam builders.

During the past few decades, Mrs. Suu Kyi successfully campaigned for international economic sanctions against her own country, to force the regime into allowing democracy.

As a result of long-term U.S.-led sanctions, Burma's relatively wealthy economy collapsed and it turned to China for economic, political and military assistance.

Burma is now one of Asia's poorest nations, beckoning international investors to exploit its vast natural resources and other commercial opportunities.

Earlier this year, after being allowed to run for political office, Mrs. Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party won 43 out of 45 available seats in parliament in April.

She is now advising world leaders to lift most sanctions to reward Burma's military-backed regime which has begun to permit some democratic freedoms.

These include greater press freedom, political and economic liberalization, and the release of some political prisoners.

Thein Sein, the reform-minded president of Burma, cancelled his attendance at the World Economic Forum at the last minute, prompting speculation that he did not want to be upstaged by Mrs. Suu Kyi.

Thein Sein said "urgent matters" required him to postpone his visit to Thailand until June 4-5, so Energy Minister Than Htay was picked to attend instead.

Slender and frail, Mrs. Suu Kyi, 66, has become an internationally acclaimed icon, frequently compared to South Africa's Nelson Mandela for their personal sacrifices to achieve democracy.

Burma was clamped under military rule after the army staged a 1962 coup.

In 1988, Mrs. Suu Kyi returned to Burma from her last trip abroad after living mostly in England.

Based in the country's largest city, Rangoon, she was supposed to become prime minister after her National League for Democracy party won a landslide victory in 1990, but the military cancelled the poll results.

Beginning in 1989, she was repeatedly sentenced to long stretches under house arrest in her musty villa, totaling more than 15 years until her most recent release in November 2010.

Mrs. Suu Kyi was free to leave Burma at any time, but refused because she feared the authorities would not allow her to return.

She did not visit her British academic husband Michael Aris as he lay dying from cancer in England, nor his 1999 funeral.

"Who could believe that such a gentle, unassuming woman could tame the military beast," wrote Bangkok Post editor Saritdet Marukatat on Tuesday (May 29).

"Mrs. Suu Kyi never advocated arms in her fight. Her weapon was strength and an iron will to restore democracy."

She is the daughter of Burma's assassinated independence leader Gen. Aung San, who collaborated with Japan's military during World War II because he believed Tokyo would liberate his country from British colonial rule.

U.S. military officials in April met Burma's Defense Minister Lt-Gen Hla Min in the capital, Naypyitaw, "and discussed searching of remains of U.S. military personnel lost on Myanmar's battleground during World War II," the government-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper reported on April 27.


Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco, California, reporting news from Asia since 1978, and recipient of Columbia University's Foreign Correspondent's Award. He is a co-author of three non-fiction books about Thailand, including "Hello My Big Big Honey!" Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews; 60 Stories of Royal Lineage; and Chronicle of Thailand: Headline News Since 1946. Mr. Ehrlich also contributed to the final chapter, Ceremonies and Regalia, in a new book titled King Bhumibol Adulyadej, A Life's Work: Thailand's Monarchy in Perspective.

His websites are

Asia Correspondent


(Copyright 2012 Richard S Ehrlich)