LONDON (Reuters) - Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi became only the second woman after Queen Elizabeth to address both houses of Britain’s parliament on Thursday, a rare honor she used to ask for help in a once in a generation opportunity to bring democracy to her country.
Cutting a tiny figure in parliament’s cavernous and historic Westminster Hall, the 67-year-old Nobel laureate received a standing ovation on arrival, introduced as “the conscience of a country and a heroine for humanity”.
“We have an opportunity to reestablish true democracy in Burma. It is an opportunity for which we have waited decades,” she said in her address, in a forum previously reserved for heads of state such as Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama.
“If we do not get things right this time right round, it may be several decades more before a similar opportunity arises again,” she warned.
Suu Kyi refers to Myanmar as Burma.
“I would ask Britain, as one of the oldest parliamentary democracies, to consider what it can do to help build the sound institutions needed to build a nascent parliamentary democracy,” she said, wearing trademark flowers in her hair and a white shawl.
Suu Kyi is in Britain as part of a 17-day tour of Europe that has at times been emotional and physically demanding. On Wednesday she returned to Oxford, where she once lived with her late husband and two sons before returning to Myanmar in 1988.
The visit, to care for her mother, was supposed to be brief, but Suu Kyi, daughter of assassinated Myanmar independence hero Aung San, was swept into her country’s political turmoil as the military crushed protests and seized power.
She spent 15 of the next 24 years under house arrest, making the Oxford graduate an icon of non-violent political resistance.
Suu Kyi refused offers allowing her to leave the country for fear she would not be allowed to return, costing her the chance to see her children grow up and also the opportunity to be with her husband Michael Aris before died of cancer in 1999.
After nearly half a century of direct military rule, in 2010 the ruling junta gave way to a quasi-civilian government stuffed with former generals, and since then current President Thein Sein has startled the world with his appetite for reforms.
Thein Sein has eased media censorship, released political prisoners and held talks with ethnic rebels, moves unthinkable just a few years earlier.
Suu Kyi was released from house arrest and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party dominated April by-elections, threatening the state’s military hegemony ahead of parliamentary polls in 2015.
British Prime Minister David Cameron earlier on Thursday said Thein Sein will travel to London in the coming months for talks on reform, a move Suu Kyi said she supported despite the president’s background in Myanmar’s military junta.
“I think it’s right to invite him. Because we don’t want to be shackled by the past. We want to use the past to build a happier future,” she said.
The reforms have earned Myanmar the suspension of some European sanctions, but Suu Kyi has urged skepticism, and on Thursday she called on the West to act as “watchdogs” to guard against government reversals on the path to democracy.
“People thought perhaps because we were in prison or under house arrest, because our party so repressed, were going through the most difficult period,” Suu Kyi said during a news conference with Cameron at Downing Street.
“No, we are about to go forward onto the most difficult road we’ve ever walked before, because now will decide what will happen in 2015 and now will decide whether we are going to make the make the breakthrough to democracy,” she said.
Suu Kyi was sworn into Myanmar’s parliament last month, but she told the audience at Westminster she wished it was less formal and more like Britain’s raucous parliamentary system.
“Men are required to wear formal headgear. There is certainly no heckling. I would wish that over time, perhaps, we will reflect the liveliness and relative informality of Westminster,” she said, sparking a roar of laughter from her audience.
Thoughts of Suu Kyi’s father, who was killed when she was two years old, loomed large in her address. At Downing Street, she said she had had a photo taken of her on the spot that her father had been photographed.
“The best known photograph of my father Aung San taken shortly before his assassination in 1947 was of him standing in Downing Street with (former prime minister) Clement Attlee and others with whom he had been discussing Burma’s transition to independence,” she said.
“A couple of hours ago I was photographed in the same place where my father was photographed together with Prime Minister David Cameron and it is raining. Very British.”
Editing by Louise Ireland and Jon Hemming