London (AsiaNews) - Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi urged Britain to provide her country "practical" help and encourage "democracy-friendly investment" so that her people can have a better future. She highlighted these two points in an historic speech delivered this afternoon to a joint session of the British parliament in the 11th Century Westminster Hall. The 67-year-old leader, affectionately known as 'The Lady', received the highest honour in Britain, the right to speak to members of parliament and peers, something usually reserved to few dignitaries, like Pope Benedict XVI, Nelson Mandela, and President Barack Obama. When introducing her, Commons Speaker John Bercow described her as "the conscience of a country and a heroine for humanity".
The first woman other than Queen Elizabeth II and first Asian to speak in Westminster Hall, Aung San Suu Kyi referred to her country by its British colonial name of Burma throughout her address, saying that it needed, constitutional reform, better education, respect for the rule of law, and an end to the conflict with ethnic minorities in the north, west and east of the country. She also stressed the importance of voting, as the best way to express freedom of choice, a right she was able to exercise for the first time only last year.
Alternating hilarity and irony, like when she compared the formality of the Burmese parliament to the "the liveliness and relative informality" of the British parliament, with remarks worthy of an elderly statesman, Aung San Suu Kyi said that underlying her visit (to Britain and Europe) was a request for "for practical help, help as a friend and an equal, in support of the reforms which can bring better lives, greater opportunities, to the people of Burma".
"My country today stands at the start of a journey towards, I hope, a better future," she said. "So many hills remain to be climbed, chasms to be bridged, obstacles to be breached."
Stressing that a lot remains to be done to build a true democracy in her country, the leader of the National League for Democracy called on "our friends, both here in Britain and beyond" to help "Burma's efforts towards the establishment of a truly democratic and just society."
On that, the 'Lady' greeted favourably the invitation of the British government to Burmese President Thein Sein, whom Aung San Suu Kyi mentioned in her speech, to visit Britain. In fact, he should come to London a few months from now on an official visit.
Ms Suu Kyi also encouraged "democracy-friendly investment" in her homeland, which is rich in natural gas and raw materials, and could become the next "Asian tiger", but is still poor and underdeveloped.
The Nobel Prize laureate did not leave out the conflicts that still affect northern, eastern and western Burma, calling for practical help to the process of national reconciliation.
She insisted especially on the importance of dialogue over short-term economic development to build a prosperous nation in the future.
For this reason, it is necessary to provide help to the tens of thousands of displaced people, especially children, forced from their homes in ethnically mixed or war-torn areas.
Speaking about her trip to Europe, which includes visits to Switzerland, Norway, Ireland, Great Britain and France, she noted that her journey "has not been a sentimental pilgrimage to the past but an exploration of the new opportunities at hand for the people of Burma."
Her address to parliament lasted about 30 minutes and was greeted at the end by a standing ovation. This was followed by ceremonial greetings to British MPs and religious leaders, including the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, primate of All England.