Bangkok: Aung San Suu Kyi's celebrity status made her the center attraction at Thursday's opening of the World Economic Forum, where the Myanmar opposition leader signed autographs and smiled politely for pictures with delegates from around the world.
Diplomats and businessmen in dark suits jostled to get in close, holding their iPhones and BlackBerry's aloft to get a picture of Suu Kyi, who is on her first trip outside of Myanmar in 24 years.
Poised and elegant in purple silk, Suu Kyi's presence in the front row prompted speakers to pay tribute.
"It's a full house," said Surin Pitsuwan, the secretary-general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. "I don't know — can we panelists can claim credit for that? Or is it because of The Lady?"
Many in Myanmar refer to Suu Kyi as "The Lady" in a gesture of respect but also because for years it was considered dangerous to utter her name aloud. The country's former military rulers were so afraid of Suu Kyi's popularity that they locked her under house arrest for 15 out of 22 years, during which time she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.
Suu Kyi was granted freedom after Myanmar, also known as Burma, held elections in 2010. Since then, President Thein Sein has surprised much of the world by engineering sweeping reforms, including holding a by-election in April in which Suu Kyi won a seat in Parliament.
For her first outing on foreign soil, Suu Kyi on Wednesday visited downtrodden Burmese migrant workers living outside Bangkok. She told them she would do all she could to reverse decades of economic ruin and make it possible for them to go home.
She planned a second trip to the area Thursday afternoon, after leaving the conference, where she spent the morning listening intently at sessions on the global economy, Asian geopolitics and China's role in the region.
Escorted through hallways by a ring of security guards, she did not speak to the media. Nor did she raise her hand when panelists asked for questions — even when the topic turned to Myanmar.
"It feels a bit presumptuous to talk about Burma in front of Daw Suu," said U.S. Senator Susan Collins, who met with Thein Sein and other senior officials during a two-day trip this week to Myanmar. Daw is a term of respect in Myanmar.
The U.S. recently eased sanctions it imposed on Myanmar during the military's regime but has said more reforms are needed before the sanctions can be lifted.
"My impression is that Burma is on a tipping point. I'm cautiously optimistic Burma will go in the right direction," Collins said. "We look forward to further advice and council from Daw Suu."
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