Thousands cheer Suu Kyi in Norway town

2012-06-18 13:00


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Bergen - Aung San Suu Kyi received another hero's welcome as many thousands cheered the Myanmar democracy icon on Sunday in a Norwegian fjord town that has a long connection with her freedom struggle.

The Rafto Foundation, based in Bergen, gave Suu Kyi her first international award 22 years ago, when she was under house arrest in the country also known as Burma, then ruled by a military junta that only recently eased its iron grip.

Following rapid change in Myanmar over the past year under a quasi-civilian government, Suu Kyi is now on a five-nation European tour, which finally allowed her to deliver her 1991 Nobel Peace Prize speech in Oslo on Saturday.

On Sunday in Bergen, the Oxford-educated daughter of Burma's assassinated independence hero was again feted by thousands who packed out a square in the mountain-ringed port city known as the Gateway to the Norwegian Fjords.

"My journey to Bergen began a long time ago when man first started to realise that all of us were born to live with human dignity," Suu Kyi, wearing a golden silk scarf and flowers in her hair, told the enthusiastic audience.

"We don't have to see the end of the road, far away, in one instant," she said of her country's ongoing transformation. "We just have to see the right way to get there. And we in Burma are trying to reach our goal."

Urging unity

She praised Norway for its history of tolerance, mutual respect and multiculturalism, and thanked its people for providing "such a warm sanctuary for people so different from you", including many Myanmar refugees.

"Norway is a cold land - I can't deny it," she said. "But you have warmed it for me with your affection, your generosity and, actually, what I think of as your gaiety, in spite of the weather," she said, to laughs from the crowd.

To achieve a harmonious society in Myanmar, where the government has agreed ceasefires with many ethnic rebel groups, she said, "we must learn to live together, to work together, to trust one another, and to respect one another".

It was a message Suu Kyi also stressed in a meeting with hundreds of Myanmar exiles from different ethnic groups, including Burmese, Karen, Mon, Kachin and Chin, urging them to stay united, whatever their background.

"We have to make a plan for our children, for the future of our children," she said in Burmese, according to a translator, also urging parents to use online resources to teach their children about their ancestral home.

She touched on recent deadly communal clashes between majority Buddhists and the Muslim Rohingya minority, saying "we really have to calm it down. We have to avoid saying and doing things that'll make the problem worse".

Development discussion

"I never dreamt Aung San Suu Kyi would come to Norway," said one admirer, Lwan Moe Anickson, aged 28, an ethnic Karen who was born in a refugee camp on the Thai border and arrived in Norway five years ago.

"She is working for equality for all the ethnic groups of Burma."

Earlier in Bergen, Suu Kyi met representatives of non-government groups and universities at the Rafto Foundation to discuss ways to support development in her impoverished country as it reopens to the world.

Talks focused on the need to improve education, modernise the public sector and create jobs, and on how to equitably harness resources, especially oil and gas, said Jan Ramstad, chair of the Egil Rafto House Foundation.

In Norway, a big oil producer, "we have created a huge oil fund for the Norwegians so we can have sustainable development in the future, and that's also a good model for Burma", he said after the closed meeting.

Myanmar's political reforms have led the United States, the European Union and others to roll back or suspend long-standing sanctions.

Key choices

Some now fear a free-for-all business bonanza, and Suu Kyi herself has stressed that ethical, transparent and "human-rights friendly, democracy-friendly investment is what we're looking for".

As Myanmar opens up, it faces key choices, said Ramstad, a trained economist with experience in post-Soviet Eastern Europe and Russia.

"If it's done the right way, it's a unique chance for positive change," he said. "If it's done the wrong way, it could be a disaster."

Like the crowds outside, Ramstad voiced his admiration for Suu Kyi: "She's amazing. She's my hero. She is so focused. She has such self-control. She is so influenced by Buddhism and Gandhi. She is totally dedicated to her people."

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