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    Southeast Asia
     Nov 16, 2010

Suu Kyi free, for now, in Myanmar
By Danielle Bernstein

YANGON - Monday was an extraordinary day in the office for Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar's newly freed democracy icon, as she set about rebuilding her weakened party and taking the first steps toward national reconciliation.

Smiling as she arrived at the National League for Democracy (NLD) headquarters in Yangon, all eyes were focused on the tasks Suu Kyi, fresh from release from house arrest, faces to heal deep divisions and unite the political opposition. She said on Sunday she was willing to meet Senior General Than Shwe, leader of Myanmar's junta, to talk through their differences.

The 65-year-old Nobel peace laureate was freed by the junta on


Saturday, six days after an election that tightened the junta's near half a century grip on power and was criticized as a sham by democracy activists and Western leaders. Suu Kyi has spent 15 of the past 21 years as a prisoner in her own home, beginning her first stretch almost a year before voters swept the NLD to a landslide victory in a 1990 election that the junta refused to recognize. The fear among political activists in Myanmar, also known as Burma, is that her freedom may be short-lived.

"This is a very dangerous period," Khin Ohmar, chairwoman of the Network for Democracy and Development in Burma, a umbrella organization of Burmese political activists in exile, told Inter Press Service (IPS). "The regime is not releasing her out of respect that she has an important role to play in Burma's political process and national reconciliation."

Suu Kyi's long spells as a political prisoner, and how she has been treated once free, have provoked deep doubts about the junta's motives. Granted freedom twice before since her first imprisonment in her now-dilapidated ancestral home on the banks of the Inya Lake in Yangon ancestral home in July 1989, Suu Kyi's freedoms has never been permanent.

She was arrested in 2003 while traveling up-country to address her NLD supporters. Her caravan was attacked by pro-government supporters, who killed a number of her followers. Her house arrest was extended in 2007 and 2008, and in August 2009 she was sentenced to another 18 months' house arrest after being held responsible after an incident in which a US national swam to her compound.

"There is no rule of law in Burma," Bo Kyi, a former political prisoner and joint secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Burma (AAPP), a group that campaigns for the rights of jailed political dissidents, told IPS. "The regime's motives are never sincere."

On Sunday, a crowd of several thousand stood rapt in the midday heat outside the NLD's headquarters to hear Suu Kyi, who is also called "The Lady", make her first official statement since release. They were left in no doubt about her opinions on the recent election.

"Elections should be held in the correct way, and unfair elections do not bring about democracy," she said. ''The people should make their voices heard. Nothing can happen without the people's participation, and we have to try, not just here but all over the world.''

Suu Kyi's speech and the press conference that followed shed some light on the role she intends to play in helping bring reconciliation and fresh dialogue to her divided country. Pledging to work with all democratic forces, she told her supporters on Sunday that she wanted to "hear the voice of the people" before deciding her course of action. She stressed open political dialogue and peaceful national reconciliation, particularly in the country's ethnic minority areas.

''The problem with violence in the border areas with ethnic groups will not be solved overnight. I am very sad that ours is a country where conflict is solved with arms,'' she said. ''We are trying to be a democratic party, but it is difficult because we do not have the freedom to organize. I do not believe it should be just one person dominating a party.''

The daughter of Burma's independence hero Aung San carries a weight of expectations among her supporters for a better future after rule by a military dictatorship since 1962, but many warn that she cannot work miracles.

"The most important thing is to start the dialogue, the only way to solve all the problems in Burma," NLD vice chairman Tin Oo told IPS. "First, all political prisoners must be released. We have to discuss about ethnic issues too," he said, referring to decades of unrest and armed struggle by ethnic groups.

"I strongly believe her to be the one who can do [change] for the country; I can even give my life for her," said Maung Maung Tin Lay, an 80-year-old veteran soldier told IPS.

Suu Kyi's stature in the past two decades has transcended Myanmar's majority Burman ethnic community and reached the patchwork of ethnic minority communities that have been at war and have endured decades of oppression under the grip of a Burman-dominated military.

Analysts have credited Suu Kyi and the NLD for getting the ethnic minorities to be part of the push for political change, through its drive for tripartite talks between the regime, the pro-democracy movement and the ethnic minorities.

Among these groups are the Karen, one of the largest ethnic nationalities whose rebel forces have been waging a separatist struggle for six decades. "We are very happy to see Aung San Suu Kyi freed after so many years," said Zipporah Sein, general secretary of the Karen National Union. "She is very important for the ethnic groups and for the people of Burma because of her struggle for rights."

Suu Kyi's first task is to heal the split in the political opposition caused by the NLD's decision to boycott the polls on the grounds the election laws were unfair, calling on voters to refuse to go to polling stations. Some party members left to stand in the poll, prompting accusations of betrayal from some of Suu Kyi's closest associates.

Suu Kyi told reporters on Sunday that she stood firm in the boycott decision. ''I do not regret not participating in an election I did not believe in because I did not believe in the constitution, I did not believe in the writing off of the 1990 elections, and I did not believe in abandoning our comrades who are in jail.''

Opposition parties complained of cheating and voter intimidation in the November 7 election. Suu Kyi said in an interview with the BBC on Sunday that the NLD would investigate all complaints of irregularities and vote-rigging.

Most observers say the results of the poll, the country's first since the NLD's victory was annulled two decades ago, were a foregone conclusion. By simple weight of numbers, the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) won a majority of the 330 seats up for grabs in the People's Parliament and the 168 in the Nationalities Parliament. This is on top of the 25% of seats that the law reserves for the military.

More than 800,000 ''advance votes'' by the military and government employees and the military, days before November 7, were criticized as forced votes to ensure that the USDP achieved victory.

Under the current constitution, adopted two years ago in a referendum that was also criticized as a sham by the international community, the president must also have a military background while the commander-in-chief will reserve the right to dismiss parliament for reasons of national security.

The NLD was officially disbanded after failing to register as an official political party to contest. However, an appeal has been filed to maintain its status as a legal political body.

U Win Tin, a member of the NLD's executive committee and also a recently freed political prisoner, told the press that he was happy to be reunited with his long-time friend and colleague. ''We have been ready for democracy for a long time. We have been ready all along. We deserve it.'' Asked if he believed the USDP could make room for moderates, he was adamant that they could not.

''U Thein Sein would not have become chairman of the party if he were a moderate,'' he said, referring to Myanmar's former prime minister under the military junta. ''You cannot survive that long if you are not a hardliner,'' he said, adding that political change would happen only when and if the people willed it.

Suu Kyi's supporters are aware of the high personal price she has paid. Her British husband, the Oxford University academic Michael Aris, died in 1999, and in the final stages of his battle with cancer the junta refused him a visa to see his wife. She has never met her grandchildren.

They are aware that Suu Kyi's personal freedom does not signify real change by the military on giving more political openness. In the days leading up to Suu Kyi's release, NLD supporters gathered at the barracks in front of her residence, many with signs and T-shirts bearing her likeness.

Across the street, military intelligence agents on orange motorbikes filmed and photographed the assembled. ''I'm not nervous that they are filming,'' U Phone Win, an unsuccessful independent candidate in Kamaryut township in Yangon said, ''They have been photographing us all along.''

Danielle Bernstein, a pseudonym, is a journalist. Additional reporting by Marwaan Macan-Markar and Yan Paing of Inter Press Service.

(Copyright 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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