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Nervous and forgiving, Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi receives rock star welcome in Europe
GENEVA (AP) ' They clapped and cheered, and then celebrated her some more.
After a standing ovation that lasted more than five minutes, the icon of Myanmar's peaceful transition to democracy plucked up the nerve to intervene.
"I don't understand why people say that I am full of courage," Aung San Suu Kyi told a packed audience Thursday at the United Nations in Geneva. "I feel terribly nervous."
She will need to get used to it. On her first trip to Europe in 24 years, Suu Kyi is being received like a rock star everywhere she goes.
Her appearance at a U.N. labor conference ' an unlikely venue for glitz and glamor ' had starry-eyed functionaries reaching for their camera phones to snap a picture as the slight 66-year-old smiled and shook hands with well-wishers.
The evening before, as Suu Kyi arrived shortly before midnight at her hotel, spontaneous applause erupted in the lobby as the staff recognized their special guest.
The Nobel peace laureate, who endured 15 years of house arrest and once feared permanent exile if she ever left Myanmar, has become the country's most electric ambassador.
During her two-week trip around Europe, Suu Kyi is expected to lay out how her country has changed and what still needs to be done before it can be called a proper democracy. She will also address both houses of Britain's parliament, receive an honorary doctorate from Oxford, attend a U2 concert in Dublin and deliver in Oslo the acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize that she won in 1991.
At the time, she was detained by the military after leading a pro-democracy party to victory in Myanmar's 1990 election. The prize was picked up instead by her 18-year-old son Alexander.
"I've been so exhausted preparing for the trip that I've had no time to think about how I'm going to feel about Oslo, but perhaps this evening I'll sit back and think about it," Suu Kyi told reporters after her speech to the U.N. labor office.
The Geneva-based agency has long campaigned against forced labor in Myanmar, earning it a first stop on Suu Kyi's much-anticipated tour. Amid the serious questions about her country's future and troubled past, some journalists also found time for philosophical questions.
When a Senegalese journalist asked her to define the term "love," Suu Kyi rose to the challenge.
"Love is to put another person or people above yourself," she said. "If you can care for somebody or some peoples, even if for a short period of time, more than you care for yourself, that is love."
Not all questions were as playful, and the leader of Myanmar's opposition National League for Democracy stepped carefully around sensitive subjects such as the ethnic unrest brewing in her country's western Rakhine province.
She said foreign investment must help ' not hurt ' Myanmar's goal of moving toward full democracy, referring to the exploitation of Myanmar's oil and gas riches, the subject of recent deals between the government and China. Western companies, too, have been eager to invest in the Southeast Asian nation as the sanctions it faced under military rule are gradually lifted.
"Any new investment that comes in because of the lifting or suspension of sanctions should add to the democratic process rather than subtract from it," Suu Kyi told reporters.
Asked about the abuses committed by the junta during its decades-long rule, Suu Kyi struck a conciliatory note, citing fellow Nobel winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
"At this moment, what I want most of all is reconciliation and not retribution," she said.
She took the same high road when it came to her own suffering at the hands of the military, who barred her British husband from visiting her in Myanmar as he was dying from cancer.
"In some ways I don't think they really did anything to me," she said. "I do not think I have anything to forgive them for."