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Aung San Suu Kyi on Thursday urged the world to help Burma complete its journey towards democracy, as she became the first foreign woman to address both houses of Britain’s parliament.
The Nobel Peace Prize laureate said her Southeast Asian homeland had yearned for democracy for decades, and could not afford to waste its chance to build a “truly democratic and just society” after 47 years of military rule.
“I am here, in part, to ask for practical help: help as a friend and an equal,” Suu Kyi told around 2,000 lawmakers and guests, who gave her a standing ovation that echoed around parliament’s cavernous Westminster Hall.
The Burmese opposition leader, who was wearing a purple longyi skirt and a white shawl, said it was an “extraordinary honour” to address the 11th-century building, an invitation previously only offered to heads of state.
Since World War II, US President Barack Obama, Pope Benedict XVI, South African president Nelson Mandela and French president Charles de Gaulle are the only other foreigners to have addressed both houses in Westminster Hall.
“We have an opportunity to re-establish true democracy in Burma,” said Suu Kyi.
“If we do not use this opportunity — if we do not get things right this time around — it may be several decades more before a similar opportunity arises,” she warned.
The 67-year-old added: “Our own determination can get us so far; the support of the people of Britain and the peoples around the world can get us so much further.”
She urged Britain, Burma’s former colonial power, to help her country develop its institutions, warning that the parliament she recently joined would “take time to find its feet”.
She also encouraged “democracy-friendly investment” in her impoverished homeland, two days after Burmese President Thein Sein pledged to follow dramatic political changes with economic reforms.
Investment that prioritises “transparency, accountability, workers’ rights and environmental stability” would be welcome in resource-rich Burma, she said.
But she warned that Burma’s development was continuing to suffer at the hands of the violence that has gripped parts of the country since independence in 1948, and urged aid for the tens of thousands displaced in recent months.
“In the immediate term we also need humanitarian support for the many people in the north and west — largely women and children — who have been forced to flee their homes,” she said.
Suu Kyi was freed from nearly two decades of house arrest in November 2010 and became a lawmaker earlier this year as part of a gradual transition towards democracy in Burma.
The speech was the climax of Suu Kyi’s visit to Britain, where she studied and lived for several years until she answered the call of duty in Burma, leaving her children and her English husband behind.
She earlier held talks with British Prime Minister David Cameron at his 10 Downing Street office, and with heir to the throne Prince Charles and his wife Camilla at their Clarence House residence, where she planted a tree in the garden.
Cameron defended his decision to invite Thein Sein to Britain for talks, given that he was, until last year, a member of the junta that held Burma in its thrall for more than two decades.
“There is a process of reform in Burma. In order for that to succeed we have to work with the regime,” he told a press conference with Suu Kyi.
Cameron in April became the first Western leader in decades to visit Myanmar, during which he met both Suu Kyi and Thein Sein.
Suu Kyi backed the decision to invite the president, saying: “We don’t want to be shackled by the past. We want to use the past to build up the future.”
On Tuesday, she made an emotional return to Oxford, the southern English city where she studied, met her late husband Michael Aris and brought up their two sons.
She said she was deeply moved on Wednesday as she received an honorary doctorate in civil law. The award was conferred in 1993 but she was unable to collect it at the time, fearing that if she left Burma the junta would not have allowed her to return.
Suu Kyi heads to France on June 26 for the last leg of her European tour, following warm welcomes in Switzerland, Ireland and Norway — where she finally delivered her Nobel Peace Prize speech, 21 years after winning the award.