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OSLO, Norway — It has taken more than two decades, countless lonely nights and imponderable hardships for Aung San Suu Kyi to reach the Oslo podium. But Burma’s celebrated former political prisoner is finally getting the chance to make her case for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Suu Kyi landed in the Norwegian capital and home for the world’s greatest diplomatic honor Friday, a day ahead of a speech that many thought she would never be permitted to make.
The 66-year-old democracy icon is expected Saturday to thank the Nobel committee and the people of Norway for the prize she won in 1991 — the second year of her 21-year existence as an exile within her own homeland. Fifteen of those years she spent in prisons or confined to her dilapidated lakeside home, the rest fearful of traveling abroad lest Burma’s military dictators prevent her return.
Norwegian leaders and artists offered a heartfelt welcome for Suu Kyi as she arrived from Switzerland, her first stop on a planned two-week tour of Europe also taking in Ireland, Britain and France, her first visit to Europe since 1988.
Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg invited her to his official residence for talks, then the pair departed for a state-style dinner at the medieval Akurshus Castle overlooking the capital’s ship-filled harbor, fjord and islands against a backdrop of a slow-blooming Nordic sunset. Sharing the head table were King Harald and Queen Sonja.
“You have dedicated your life to the struggle for democracy in your country, and you are an inspiration for all of us,” Stoltenberg told Suu Kyi during a joint news conference. “The new political reality in Burma is remarkable. We have witnessed great changes in less than a year. Your presence here in Oslo is proof that your long fight for democracy and justice for your people is really paying off.”
He and Suu Kyi agreed that difficult, careful diplomacy could still be required with the military-backed the government of President Thein Sein, a retired general who rose to power last year, to cede power to Suu Kyi’s opposition National League for Democracy. The former junta’s peace moves, under international pressure, brought her release from house arrest in 2010 and her party’s triumph in parliamentary byelections in April.
“We are certainly not at the end of the road, by no means, we are just starting out,” Suu Kyi said of her efforts to coax Burma’s military chiefs toward accepting democracy. “And this road is not going to be a straightforward, smooth one. There are going to be many twists and turns and obstacles, but we are going to have to negotiate these in the spirit of national reconciliation.”
After Saturday’s Nobel speech, Suu Kyi is scheduled to tour an elaborate display at the fjord-side Nobel Peace Center chronicling her life’s key moments of despair, determination and triumph.
“(Her visit) means a lot to the Norwegian people because we admire her so much and we have longed to see her coming here and give her Nobel speech,” said the executive director of the Nobel center, Bente Erichsen.
Suu Kyi made it to Oslo despite falling ill Thursday at a news conference in Bern, Switzerland. Her aides said she was suffering from exhaustion due to overwork and jet lag, and while she appeared tired at Friday’s Oslo events, she made no comment on it.
She is scheduled to spend three days in Oslo and the Norwegian city of Bergen, then travel to the Irish capital, Dublin, on Monday for a celebrity-studded concert in her honor with U2 frontman Bono. After that, it’s back to Oxford University, where she studied before her 1980s blossoming into the leading voice for democracy in Burma.
Bono was expected to join her at an Oslo news conference Monday and fly with her to Dublin. He will then present her with another award postponed by her long home imprisonment, Amnesty International’s Ambassador of Conscience, which Bono had unveiled at a Dublin U2 concert in 2009.
Earlier Friday, Suu Kyi visited Switzerland’s Parliament and met government officials in Bern, where crowds greeted her with cheers and bouquets of flowers. She received a standing ovation from Swiss lawmakers, mirroring the rock star reception that greeted her Thursday at the United Nations in Geneva.
But when asked if her euphoric European reception this week as Burma’s rightful leader might upset the generals and lead to renewed repression, she dismissed the prospect.
“I cannot see any good reason why either President Thein Sein and his government or the military should object to this,” she said. “Certainly I don’t think they have anything to fear in the interest that other countries show in my party and myself, because we want to work for national reconciliation. And we will not do anything to harm that.”
Suu Kyi was released from junta-imposed house arrest in November 2010. In April 2012 she won a seat in the country’s national assembly, her first opportunity to run for office.
Burma’s military rulers first jailed her in 1989, the year before her National League for Democracy triumphed in Burma’s first open elections. The junta quashed that result, refused to surrender power, and did not hold new elections until 2010. U.N. and U.S. officials branded that vote fraudulent, partly because Suu Kyi was barred from running as a candidate.
When asked by a reporter if she had ever imagined, in the decades since her Nobel honor, she would reach Oslo one day, Suu Kyi raised her brows with incredulity and smiled broadly.
“Yes of course, I always believed that. That’s why I have always said that the first time I traveled abroad I would come to Norway,” she said. “I never doubted that. Did you?”