Sunday, 14 November 2010

Suu Kyi Vows to Renew Push for Change

A day after her release from more than seven years of house arrest, Myanmar prodemocracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi signaled she intends to keep pressing for political change—a mission observers say has been made more difficult by the military junta's tightened grip on power.

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Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi greeted by thousands of cheering supporters, in Yangon, Myanmar, on Sunday.

In a handful of public appearances in Yangon, including a speech before some 5,000 supporters, Ms. Suu Kyi called for talks with the junta's reclusive supreme leader, Gen. Than Shwe, and emphasized the need for "rule of law," the Associated Press reported. She also promised to use "whatever authority I have" to pursue dialogue with the country's generals, who have resisted meeting with her in the past.

Freed Myanmar pro-democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi tells supporters in Yangon she is encouraged to see them. Video courtesy of Reuters.

Ms. Suu Kyi's initial public outings, in a country where gatherings of more than five people are technically illegal, underscored both her widespread popular appeal and the daunting scale of the challenges ahead for her. There was no immediate response from the government on her call for talks.

Her comments also raised questions about how far she will be willing to go to test the regime in the months ahead, given its past record of re-arresting her whenever it feels she poses a threat.

Although Ms. Suu Kyi's remarks on Sunday remained largely conciliatory, they left little doubt she intended to play a political role going forward—something analysts and many residents believe the regime doesn't want to allow.

Photos: Suu Kyi Released

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Take a look at major events in Aung San Suu Kyi's life.

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Ms. Suu Kyi's release on Saturday, on the final day of her latest sentence under the regime, electrified Yangon residents and drew words of encouragement from celebrities and politicians across the globe. Supporters chanted "We love Suu" as she spoke Sunday at the former headquarters of her recently disbanded political organization, the National League for Democracy.

A witness at Ms. Suu Kyi's appearances on Sunday said it was impossible to find space to stand, with residents sitting in trees, on car roofs and on high walls. Some had traveled from rural areas, while many wore T-shirts bearing the words, "We Stand With Suu Kyi." Police with video and still cameras took pictures of people in the crowd from the roof of a nearby religious building.

Some residents said her release offered the first hope in years that the country's military regime, which has overseen Myanmar's descent into one of the poorest countries in the world since taking over in 1962, will change.

Yet Ms. Suu Kyi's ability to alter the political dynamic in Myanmar remains limited, analysts say. Despite being one of the world's most famous political prisoners, her position has weakened considerably in recent years as the military has fortified its financial and military strength through expanded ties with China and other Asian allies, including rapidly rising sales of natural gas and other commodities.


U.S. Statement: Release of Aung San Suu Kyi
Frustrations Increase After Myanmar Vote
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Graphic: Myanmar Election 2010
The regime appeared to cement its control over the country just days before Ms. Suu Kyi's release, in a national election on Nov. 7 dominated by the government-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party. State media have said the party secured a majority in both houses of the country's new Parliament, winning roughly 85% of the seats for which results were announced.

The regime has released results from the election in piecemeal over the past week, and it is still unclear precisely how many seats were won by opposition groups such as the National Democratic Force, a splinter group of Ms. Suu Kyi's NLD that has advocated less-confrontational tactics against the regime.

The NDF and other small opposition parties are expected to wind up with at least a few seats, though fewer than they hoped for.

Dissidents and Western observers derided the election, Myanmar's first in 20 years, as a sham, with widespread reports of voting irregularities.

But the vote was quickly endorsed by neighbors such as China and Vietnam, and Myanmar's government said it was free and fair.

More important for Ms. Suu Kyi, the election wipes out the results of Myanmar's last vote in 1990, which Ms. Suu Kyi's political organization easily won but which the military junta subsequently ignored.

The latest election also saw the emergence of several rival opposition groups—including some that are counseling less confrontation with the regime—that might not fully accept Ms. Suu Kyi's leadership.

Some Myanmar residents, especially younger dissidents, revere Ms. Suu Kyi but have questioned her past tendency to confront the regime, which they believe has led it only to dig in its heels and resist political change.

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European Pressphoto Agency
Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi received flowers over the fence of her house and waved to supporters as she was set free Saturday.

The government of Myanmar, also known as Burma, has made only brief public references to Ms. Suu Kyi's release. A late-evening broadcast on a state news channel Saturday said that Ms. Suu Kyi had been set free by order of the government and that her release came with no conditions. It showed the chief of police visiting her in her home and expressing approval of her good health.

Speculation of a possible release had been building for weeks, mainly because Ms. Suu Kyi's latest term under house arrest—imposed after an American well-wisher swam uninvited to her home, violating the terms of a previous detention—was due to expire on Saturday. Analysts have long thought the junta wanted to free Ms. Suu Kyi to silence international critics who were calling for her release and to ensure she didn't die under its watch, which could have led to unrest.

But the regime was wary of letting her out before the election, when her popularity and formidable political skill could have influenced the outcome.

With the election finished, Myanmar's generals "just seem really self-confident" in their grip on power, says Sean Turnell, a Myanmar expert at Macquarie University in Australia.

Myanmar's government may also hope that freeing Ms. Suu Kyi will lead Western nations to reconsider the economic sanctions they imposed on Myanmar over the past decade, largely in protest of Ms. Suu Kyi's detention. But that appears unlikely given the level of distrust between the two sides.

Soon after her release on Saturday, U.S. President Barack Obama said in a statement that while he welcomed the release of Ms. Suu Kyi, whom he called a "hero," he said it "does not change the fact that she, and the political opposition she represents, has been systematically silenced, incarcerated, and deprived of any opportunity to engage in political processes."

Other international leaders hailed her release, but insisted the government allow her the freedom to move about the country and participate in political activities.

Burma Campaign UK, an activist group, said in a statement that it "welcomed" Ms. Suu Kyi's release, but that it "should not be interpreted as a sign that democratic reform is on the way," and was "designed to get positive publicity" after "the blatant rigging of elections on 7th November."

The biggest question now is how hard Ms. Suu Kyi will push in her efforts to confront the regime.

Many supporters believe she will try to keep a relatively low profile in the short run, focusing largely on rebuilding her political party, the National League for Democracy, which was disbanded by the government earlier this year when it refused to participate in the polls. Its former leaders, many now in their 70s and 80s, have said they intend to keep the party going as a social organization, but its influence has declined in recent years without Ms. Suu Kyi's active participation.

Ms. Suu Kyi has also indicated through a party spokesman that she hopes the party will look into allegations of fraud in the latest election, a move that could quickly put her on a collision course with the regime.

In her speech on Sunday, Ms. Suu Kyi stopped short of directly criticizing the government and even thanked a security detail for treating her well while she was under arrest.

Still, she left little doubt she opposes the regime's policies. If authorities "don't want to be blamed for bad things, they shouldn't do bad things," she said, according to an eyewitness.

She also called on supporters to remember the country's other political prisoners, who total about 2,100 people, according to international human-rights groups.

Ms. Suu Kyi also met with a group of Yangon-based diplomats and was scheduled to attend a funeral and visit a Yangon pagoda.

The daughter of a national hero who helped secure Myanmar's independence from British rule in the 1940s, Ms. Suu Kyi emerged as a political force in the late 1980s, as the country reeled from years of disastrous economic policies and government crackdowns.

Many residents were enthralled by Ms. Suu Kyi's calls for Western-style democracy.

Ms. Suu Kyi quickly aroused the ire of top generals, and they placed her under arrest in 1989, keeping her under detention for 15 of the past 21 years.

She was last detained in 2003, after a pro-government mob attacked her entourage and killed many of her followers during a tour of northern Myanmar. Authorities extended her detention another 18 months in August 2009.

A lot has changed since Ms. Suu Kyi last walked free in 2003. In past years, she was the undisputed leader of Myanmar's dissident movement. The military government, meanwhile, was struggling after years of economic problems intensified by sanctions, which led multinational companies, such as PepsiCo Inc., to cut their ties with the country.

More recently, the regime's position has strengthened considerably. Its decision to disband Ms. Suu Kyi's party allowed other opposition groups—especially those that take a more moderate line against the government—to vie for influence.

The regime has also greatly expanded its trade and investment ties with China and other Asian countries, which covet Myanmar's natural resources and are pouring billions of dollars into new ports, gas pipelines and hydroelectricity facilities, helping the junta overcome sanctions. The country has been running a large trade surplus in recent years and now has an estimated $6 billion in foreign reserves.

Ms. Suu Kyi is "in a far more restricted place than she was" when she was last free, says David Mathieson, a Thailand-based researcher for Human Rights Watch. Over the past seven years, the government has "gotten stronger, while they've weakened her party."

Some analysts have cautioned against underestimating Ms. Suu Kyi, though. She has repeatedly found a way to undermine the regime despite her limited financial and political resources. She remains by far the most popular political figure in the country.

One Yangon woman, a 30-year-old relief worker, said on Saturday that Ms. Suu Kyi's release left "happier than I can say," adding, "we feel empowered by her." Another resident, a 66-year-old retired government employee, was more reserved. "This is the news everyone always wanted to hear," he said. "But there are challenges for her, and of course, for all of us."

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