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Suu Kyi takes first trip outside of Myanmar in 24 years

Myanmar pro-democracy leader lands in Thailand with big plans, little planning

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Aung San Suu Kyi arrived at Bangkok’s airport Tuesday, beginning her first trip outside Myanmar in 24 years.

BANGKOK - “We’ll have to play it by ear, I guess,’’ said Thani Thongphakdi, a spokesman for the Thai Foreign Ministry.

He was referring to the visit of Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of Myanmar’s democracy movement and a newly elected member of Parliament, who arrived in Thailand on Tuesday. Ignoring a row of photographers awaiting her, she left the airport without commenting.

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A trip outside Myanmar is a personal milestone for Suu Kyi - her first journey abroad in 24 years. But planning it appears to have been an afterthought. For example, no one from her office contacted the Thai Foreign Ministry, which normally coordinates such high-profile visits.

“As far as I know, we have not been approached by her team,’’ Thani said a few hours before she was to land.

News reports said Suu Kyi would visit a Thai refugee camp in Tak Province that is home to ethnic minorities from Myanmar who fled during decades of fighting. But travel to the area is restricted by the Thai government, and the officials who are responsible for granting permission for such visits said they were in the dark.

“We are only learning about her arrival from the media, not from her team,’’ Suriya Prasatbuntitya, the governor of Tak province, said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “I guess we’ll have to get details of her schedule on our own — and be prepared.’’

Suu Kyi may meet with Abhisit Vejjajiva, the former Thai prime minister. She may also visit an area outside Bangkok that is home to thousands of migrant workers from Myanmar.

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No one was available to confirm her schedule. The mobile telephone of U Nyan Win, the spokesman for Suu Kyi, was “power off’’ Tuesday, according to an automated message.

Suu Kyi’s style might be described as spontaneous.

In the year and a half since her release from house arrest, those who have had dealings with her have generally been forgiving of the quirks of her operation: Her staff is hard to reach and e-mails often go unanswered.

Less forgiving was Thein Sein, the president of Myanmar. He was scheduled to visit Thailand this week, but he canceled the trip soon after news reports appeared saying Suu Kyi would go.

Thein Sein, who has spearheaded the changes in Myanmar since coming to power last year, had been confirmed to speak this week at a conference sponsored by the World Economic Forum, the same group that puts on the annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland.

Organizers of the forum announced last week that Suu Kyi would also attend and released a schedule giving her top billing, including a Q-and-A session titled “One-on-One Conversation With a Leader.’’

Fon Mathuros, a spokeswoman for the World Economic Forum, said Thein Sein canceled his appearance with “no further explanation.’’

Nay Zin Latt, an adviser to Thein Sein, said the president could not make time to go.

“He is extremely busy with his work and taking great care of transitioning and transformation,’’ Nay Zin Latt said in an e-mail.

Thai officials said the president’s visit has been rescheduled for next week.

A meeting in August between Thein Sein and Suu Kyi helped start the reforms now underway in Myanmar. In the months after that meeting, Suu Kyi announced that she and her political party, the National League for Democracy, would rejoin the political system.

In April, Suu Kyi won a seat in Parliament.

Among the crowd waiting at the Bangkok airport to catch a glimpse of her Tuesday was a 24-year-old factory worker from Myanmar, Zin Oo Maung, who stitches jeans for $10 a day at a factory on the outskirts of the city. He turned down some overtime work so that he could greet Suu Kyi.

“She is hope,’’ he said. “We hope our country’s economy gets better and we’ll be able to return.’’

Although she spent much of the time since 1988 under house arrest, Suu Kyi could have left Myanmar but probably would not have been able to return. She stayed, believing that her absence would have made it easier for the military to crush the democracy movement. Her willingness to travel abroad now is a vote of confidence in Myanmar’s moves toward democracy.

Next month, she is scheduled to visit four European nations: Britain, where she will address the two houses of Parliament; Norway, where she will belatedly accept her 1991 Nobel Peace Prize; Switzerland, where she will deliver a speech to the International Labor Organization; and Ireland, where she will meet one of her keenest supporters, Bono, the lead singer of the rock band U2.

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