Democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi left Myanmar Sunday for a landmark trip to the United States, set to see her feted by the US president and quizzed on the progress of reforms.
The Nobel laureate, who was elected to parliament this year, flew out of Yangon accompanied by new US ambassador to Myanmar Derek Mitchell, according to an AFP reporter at the scene.
Suu Kyi’s high profile visit, the first to the US since she began her democracy struggle in 1988, will include a trip to Washington to meet US President Barack Obama whose government has been at the forefront of Western re-engagement with the long-time military dominated country.
She will also be showered in awards including the Congressional Gold Medal, the top honour bestowed by the US Congress, and meet Burmese diaspora groups as far apart as New York and San Francisco.
During her near three-week trip Suu Kyi is likely to be questioned about reforms that have seen Myanmar take tentative steps onto the global stage after decades under a secretive military regime.
“I think Daw Suu can talk at least about the reforms situation in Myanmar. She will get this opportunity,” Nyan Win, a spokesman for Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party told AFP, using a common honorific for the opposition leader.
Suu Kyi will travel with just three other people, he added, and is expected to arrive in Washington on Monday.
Despite the predicted red carpet welcome her visit is laced with potential political trouble.
Suu Kyi’s stay coincides with that of Myanmar’s President Thein Sein, who is due in the US later in the month to attend the United Nations general Assembly.
“There is a risk that she will overshadow this significant first US visit by Thein Sein – who has not yet really gotten the international recognition that he deserves for the remarkable reform process that he has put in place,” according to Richard Horsey, an independent Myanmar analyst.
Horsey said it would be “particularly unhelpful” if the US president chose to meet Myanmar’s democracy champion but not its leader, “which unfortunately looks to be the case”.
The 67-year-old could also face tricky questions on the treatment of stateless Rohingya Muslims after a wave of deadly communal violence in western Myanmar.
Suu Kyi has remained cautious in her comments about the group, who many in Myanmar believe are foreigners and therefore not entitled to citizenship.
Last week the US embassy in Yangon expressed its “great concern” at the humanitarian situation in Rakhine state.
Following sweeping moves to lift or suspend sanctions by other Western nations this year, Washington in July gave the green light to US companies to invest in Myanmar, although a ban on all imports from the country remains.
Suu Kyi lived in New York between 1969 and 1971, according to her Nobel prize biography, where she worked at the United Nations secretariat.