Burmese heroine lands in Oslo

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Norway was rolling out the red carpets this weekend for Aung San Suu Kyi, the brave Burmese woman who endured more than two decades of detention in her home country as she carried on her struggle for democracy and human rights. Now her Norwegian hosts were hoping she wouldn’t be too exhausted to appreciate and enjoy all the attention they planned to heap on her.

Aung San Suu Kyi, fondly known as "The Lady" in Burma, was spending the weekend in Norway, before traveling on to Ireland on Monday. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet

Norway was supposed to have been the first country Suu Kyi would visit after finally feeling able to leave the country she still calls Burma, also known as Myanmar. Instead she visited Thailand recently and landed on Thursday in Switzerland, where she visited the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in Geneva before traveling on to Bern.

Suu Kyi had to cut short a press conference, though, and bow out of a formal dinner with Swiss government officials Thursday evening when she suddenly felt unwell. The 66-year-old Nobel Laureate, who recently assumed a seat in the Burmese parliament after years of house arrest, said she was simply worn out after her first lengthy overseas trip since 1988.

“It’s been a very exhausting journey,” she told reporters, adding that she had become “completely unused to time (zone) change. Having stayed in one place for so long, I find the plane journey out to the west extremely  exhausting and a little bit disorienting, because I couldn’t adjust to the new time as quickly as I might have 24 years ago. It may of course have something to do with age … or lack of practice.”

Norwegian officials were hoping she’d get over jet lag by late Friday afternoon, when she landed at  Oslo’s main airport at Gardermoen and was met by the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Thorbjørn Jagland, the committee’s secretary Geir Lundestad and government minister Liv Signe Navarsete. Jagland seemed so excited to finally welcome Suu Kyi to Norway that he almost forgot to hand her the bouquet of flowers he was holding.

Suu Kyi, smiling and calling the weather “a little cold,” was then driven into the city in a six-car police-escorted convoy  for a meeting with Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg. Then he, and the rest of the Norwegian government, would be her hosts for a formal dinner at the historic Akershus Fortress and Castle, with King Harald and Queen Sonja in attendance.

On Saturday she planned to visit the Oslo Center for Peace and Human Rights, after which she’d be welcomed again by the king and queen in an audience at the Royal Palace in Oslo. And from there she’d be taken to the Oslo City Hall, where she finally could deliver the Nobel Lecture she should have been able to make after winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.

Saturday’s events were planned in the form of an amended Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. Her late husband and two sons had accepted the Peace Prize in her absence when she won it 21 years ago, so the Norwegian Nobel Committee was mostly making up for her lack of participation at the time.

After the ceremony a long list of humanitarian groups and foundations, the foreign ministry and several companies were organizing and sponsoring what the Norwegians call a folkefest (people’s party), including speeches and musical interludes from 4-5pm on the City Hall Plaza (Rådhusplassen). Then there would be a banquet at the Grand Hotel, much like those always held for Peace Prize winners in December, when the prize is traditionally awarded.

‘The new Mandela’
Suu Kyi’s support and popularity in Norway has been enormous for years. Geir Lundestad, secretary of the Nobel Committee who held the same job when she won the Peace Prize in 1991, told newspaper Aftenposten that he thinks she’s taken over the role that Nelson Mandela held, as a role model for non-violent resistance and democracy.

Kjell Magne Bondevik, the former Norwegian prime minister who has backed Suu Kyi’s cause for years, also compares her to Mandela. “Both were leaders of the democracy movement before they were jailed, both became natural leaders when freed,” Bondevik told Aftenposten. “Suu Kyi has sacrificed being with her family to fight for a free nation. Her perseverance is almost incomprehensible.”

Thorbjørn Jagland, current head of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, believes the Peace Prize helped Suu Kyi carry on her opposition to Burma’s military junta for 21 years. The prize brought her huge amounts of international attention at the time “and I think it meant that she was more protected,” Jagland told news bureau NTB. “I know that she has valued the prize very highly through the years. That must mean it was positive for her, and her cause.” Both Bondevik and Jagland were among those due to speak at her party on the plaza Saturday afternoon.

Suu Kyi will also travel to Bergen on Sunday to meet the board behind another major international prize she received for her efforts to secure human rights in Burma, the Rafto Prize.

On Monday Suu Kyi was to visit the Norwegian Parliament and then take part in the Oslo Forum at the hotel and golf club Losby Gods northeast of Oslo. There she’d be met by rock star and human rights champion Bono, who would escort her on to Ireland for more special events. She would also spend a week in Great Britain, where she once lived and studied, before ending her European trip in France on June 25.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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