Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar's Nobel Peace Prize-winning opposition figure, has left the country for the first time in 24 years on a visit to Thailand.
Her trip on Tuesday is seen as a newfound display of confidence in the liberalisation taking shape in her country after five decades of military rule.
Suu Kyi, who spent 15 years in detention under Myanmar's military dictatorship, is due to give a speech at this week's World Economic Forum on East Asia in Bangkok.
She was greeted at the airport by journalists and around two dozen of her compatriots who chanted "Mother Suu", eliciting smiles and a wave from the democracy champion, before she was whisked away by car.
Until now, Suu Kyi had refused to leave Myanmar during brief periods of freedom from her years of detention, fearing the generals she was challenging would not allow her back into the country.
Her decision to leave the country comes after a year of dramatic change unthinkable in March 2011, when military ruler Than Shwe made way for a government stacked with his proteges following elections seen as rigged to favour an army-backed party and held while Suu Kyi remained under house arrest.
But in 18 months since the election which the army-backed party won, the changes have been sweeping.
Suu Kyi has since been released and is now a parliamentarian having been convinced by reformist President Thein Sein, a former general, to contest a by-election and take part in a political system devised and dominated by retired and serving soldiers.
Hundreds of political prisoners have been freed, protests legalised, media censorship eased and dialogue with ethnic minority rebels is moving forward, as is economic liberalisation.
The reforms have convinced Suu Kyi to support the suspension of Western sanctions, which had crippled the economy of Myanmar, after staunchly advocating embargoes to squeeze the generals.
Thein Sein was also due to give a speech at the same forum in Bangkok, but has since cancelled his visit, according to Myanmar government sources, who requested anonymity.
Suu Kyi, the daughter of the leader of Myanmar's campaign for independence from British rule, spent years away from home, including many in Britain after marrying a British academic, Michael Aris.
She returned to her homeland in 1988 to take care of her dying mother and got caught up in a student-led democracy uprising that swept the country that year and which the military eventually crushed.
Suu Kyi was first detained in 1989. From then on, she refused to leave, even after her husband was diagnosed with cancer. Aris died in 1999.
She is also due next month to visit Switzerland, Norway and Britain.
She will give an address in Geneva to an international labour conference on June 14 and will spend a week in Britain from June 18, during which she will give a speech to both houses of parliament.
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|William A. Cook|