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On first trip abroad in 24 years, Suu Kyi visits Myanmar refugees in Thailand who fled war
MAE LA REFUGEE CAMP, Thailand (AP) ' Aung San Suu Kyi turned her attention to Myanmar's long-standing refugee crisis Saturday with a visit to a sprawling camp on Thailand's border to get her first glimpse of the hardships faced by hundreds of thousands who have fled war in her homeland.
The six-day journey this week is the first trip abroad in 24 years for Nobel Peace Prize laureate Suu Kyi, who this year made the transition from former political prisoner to opposition parliamentarian. She has used her tour of Thailand primarily to draw attention to the plight of her compatriots abroad.
Hundreds of cheering supporters welcomed Suu Kyi at the airport in the town of Mae Sot, and she was then driven in a police-led convoy to the Mae La refugee camp. The camp is home to about 45,000 refugees who live in thatched huts at the base of mist-shrouded mountains.
The trip marks a dramatic vote of confidence by Suu Kyi in Myanmar's new reform-minded government, whose rule contrasts starkly with that of the former military junta. Even when she was not under house arrest or imprisoned under the former regime, Suu Kyi had always refused to leaving the country, fearing the ruling generals would never have let her return.
Suu Kyi has repeatedly said she believes army-backed President Thein Sein is truly committed to democratic reform, but this week she warned the international community to exercise caution and a "healthy skepticism," saying the nation's all-powerful military was still a force "to be reckoned with."
Western nations have begun suspending harsh economic sanctions that once helped isolate the now-defunct military regime, but critics say much more needs to be done. Hundreds of political prisoners remain behind bars, fighting with ethnic Kachin rebels is continuing in the north, and according to the United Nations, at least 417,000 refugees are still afraid to return.
The vast majority of those refugees live in Thailand, Malaysia, India and Bangladesh.
On Saturday, Suu Kyi was expected to fly west from Bangkok to the town of Mae Sot, from where she is supposed to drive more than an hour to the Mae La refugee camp.
This part of the Thai border is home to up to 140,000 ethnic Karen refugees.
The Karen have been waging a guerrilla war for greater autonomy since the country obtained independence from Britain in 1948 ' one of the longest insurgencies in the world.
In recent weeks, however, the group has been in negotiations with the government to end the fighting. Last month, leaders from the Karen National Union met Thein Sein's military-backed government as well as Suu Kyi to firm up a cease-fire they agreed in January.
Suu Kyi spent 15 out of 22 years locked under house arrest by the former military regime, during which time she occasionally spoke to the outside world through audio and video messages. She was granted freedom after Myanmar held elections in 2010 and was elected to parliament in April.
She is due to return to Myanmar on Sunday, but next month, she flies to five countries in Europe, including Norway, where she will formally accept her Nobel Peace Prize, 21 years after winning it.
On Friday, she said her mission was to find out how the world can help "that little piece of the world that some of us call Burma and some of us call Myanmar."
Anticipating huge aid and investment to develop Myanmar's stunted infrastructure, Suu Kyi said she hoped foreign firms would invest cautiously and transparently, so the influx of money can benefit the impoverished masses.
"We do not want more investment to mean more possibilities for corruption," she said. "Our country must benefit."
Myanmar's sputtering economy, in ruins after half a century of military rule and years of harsh Western sanctions, has led to huge unemployment and has forced millions of people to seek jobs abroad.
Since elections last year, Thein Sein has surprised much of the world by engineering sweeping reforms. But Suu Kyi noted that the country is only in the very early phases of building a democracy and still lacks rule of law and an independent judiciary.
"These days I am coming across what I call reckless optimism," she told the room packed with several hundred people and a wall of TV cameras. She drew applause, saying, "A little bit of healthy skepticism I think is in order."
Associated Press writer Jocelyn Gecker contributed to this report.