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Suu Kyi makes historic visit to Switzerland

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09:19 CEST+02:00

Burma democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi is due to address the International Labour Organization conference in Geneva on Thursday, kicking off the opposition leader's historic European tour.

Suu Kyi arrived in Switzerland late Wednesday on the first leg of the trip which will see her formally accept the Nobel Peace Prize that thrust her into the global spotlight two decades ago.

The veteran activist has not visited Europe since 1988 after years spent under house arrest.

The trip marks a new milestone in the political changes that have swept Burma, also known as Myanmar, since decades of military rule ended last year, bringing to power a new quasi-civilian government.  

Switzerland is the first stop on a more than two-week tour taking in Norway, Britain, France and Ireland and which will include a speech in Oslo for her 1991 Nobel Peace Prize.

Suu Kyi left Yangon as western Burma was rocked by sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya that has left dozens dead and prompted President Thein Sein to warn of disruption to the fragile reform process.

The president is credited for a series of reforms including releasing hundreds of political prisoners, signing peace pacts with armed rebel groups and welcoming Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party back into mainstream politics.

The ILO, a United Nations agency which draws up and monitors international labour standards, has sought for years to rid Burma of the practice of forced labour which it says is widespread there.

In March the government signed an action plan to eliminate it outright by 2015.

Suu Kyi is expected to touch upon this and the issue of trade unions during her address at 11am (0900 GMT).

In a video speech last year to the government representatives, employers and workers who make up the ILO she stressed as a key priority the creation of unions, formerly banned under the military junta.

The ILO welcomed Suu Kyi's decision to address the conference in person this year.

"I would say it's remarkable," said Kari Tapiola, special advisor to ILO Director General Juan Somavia.

"It shows her interest in the labour agenda that she has decided to come here before going to visit Oslo."

Suu Kyi will later on Thursday take the train to the capital Bern where she will meet with Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter.

"The political situation in Myanmar, which is currently undergoing a process of opening up, will be the focus of the talks," a Foreign Ministry statement said.

Suu Kyi will dine with Swiss President Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf in the evening and visit parliament before heading to Oslo on Friday.

Later in the trip the veteran activist will address Britain's parliament and receive an Amnesty International human rights award in Dublin from rock star Bono.

The daughter of Myanmar's independence hero General Aung San won her first ever seat in parliament in April, prompting Western nations to start rolling back sanctions.

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