LONDON/OXFORD, England (Reuters) - Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi began an emotional visit to Britain on Tuesday, saying her own stubbornness and the support of the British people had given her the strength to endure almost two decades of house arrest in her native Myanmar.
Now one of the world’s most famous symbols of non-violent political protest, Suu Kyi, 67, left her two sons and husband in Britain in 1988 to take up the fight for democracy in Myanmar as the military crushed pro-democracy protests and seized power.
Before Tuesday, she had never dared go back and spent much of the following two decades under house arrest, unable to spend time with her sons or be with her husband before he died of cancer in 1999.
Celebrating her 67th birthday, she received a standing ovation when she addressed a packed auditorium at the London School of Economics on Tuesday at the start of her trip.
“It’s all of you and people like you that have given me the strength to continue,” she said, to whoops and cheers from the audience. “And I suppose I do have a stubborn streak in me.”
She then travelled to the English city of Oxford where she lived for many years with her late husband, academic Michael Aris, and her two sons Kim, now 35, and Alexander, now 39.
“Welcome back! Welcome back!” chanted a crowd of about 200 activists and local residents who gathered in central Oxford for a glimpse of Suu Kyi as her motorcade glided through the medieval alleys of Britain’s oldest university town.
Her return to Oxford, where she read politics, philosophy and economics in the 1960s at the then-women-only St Hugh’s college, and met her husband, was particularly poignant.
“It’s a child-like excitement,” said Andrew Dilnot, Principal of St Hugh‘s, before he greeted Suu Kyi at Oxford’s landmark Clarendon Building along with other senior staff.
“The idea that she is coming here, the city where she was an undergraduate, the city where she brought up her children, feels like an enormous privilege.”
Peter Khin Tun, 54, a doctor who fled Myanmar 18 years ago, added: “We are very proud of her. I feel very close to her. That’s why I came here. She is true to herself. Nowadays it’s very rare to see someone with a sincere heart.”
While in Oxford, Suu Kyi is expected to meet her sons and other family members, some of whom she never met, in a private reunion - a moment certain to be both joyful and painful for a woman who refused to leave Myanmar for decades for fear that its military leaders would not let her back into the country.
“I missed them (her sons), and they missed me, but as I said, when I looked at the lives of my colleagues it was much worse,” she told Britain’s Sky News.
“I don’t justify it, I think that everybody must accept responsibility for what they do. I accept responsibility for what I did and what I am, and so must my sons.”
On Wednesday, she is due to be presented with an honorary degree by Oxford University and to address the Oxford Union.
Her hair adorned with a trademark white flower, she bowed gracefully and smiled as activists shouted “Happy birthday” and unfurled banners saying “Free all political prisoners”.
“You are our leader! You will restore democracy!” shouted one activist, Htein Lin, his T-shirt bearing a photo of Suu Kyi. Passersby and tourists visiting one of the UK’s top destinations looked on and took photos of the jubilant crowd.
Suu Kyi is the daughter of Aung San, the assassinated hero of Myanmar’s struggle for independence from British rule, a heritage that propelled her into politics after returning to Myanmar in 1988, in part to care for her ailing mother.
In London, Suu Kyi spoke about the importance of the rule of law in Myanmar, which was under military control for 49 years but in recent months has surprised the world with a slew of democratic reforms including parliamentary polls.
“The reason why I’ve emphasised the rule of law so much in my political work, is because this is what we all need if we are to really proceed towards democracy,” said the Oxford graduate, who was sworn into Myanmar’s parliament last month.
“Unless people see that justice is done and seen to be done, we cannot believe in genuine reform,” she added, wearing a lilac scarf.
The military seized power in 1988 as troops crushed pro-democracy protests. Her National League for Democracy party won a 1990 general election, but the generals refused to step down.
In 2010, the military gave way to a quasi-civilian government stacked with ex-generals, but President Thein Sein has in the past year startled many by freeing political prisoners, easing censorship and holding talks with ethnic rebels.
In contrast to her earlier comments urging “healthy skepticism” of the Myanmar government’s commitment to reforms, Suu Kyi said in her London speech she was confident she could work with the military rulers to amend the constitution.
“Do we think it can be amended? Yes, we think so, because we think that it’s possible to work together with the military to make them understand why we think that this constitution will not move us (the country) in a positive direction,” she said.
At end of her appearance in London, the 1,000-strong audience sang “Happy Birthday”, and the LSE presented Suu Kyi with a framed picture of her father. On Thursday she is due to address both houses of Britain’s parliament, a rare honor.
During what is a 17-leg European tour, Suu Kyi has been feted by politicians and pop stars and cheered by crowds in Ireland, Switzerland and Norway, where she finally received the Nobel Peace Prize she was awarded in 1991.
Additional reporting by Avril Ormsby in London; Editing by Andrew Osborn