Suu Kyi attempts to unite opposition

PRO-DEMOCRACY leader Aung San Suu Kyi reached out to Burma’s splintered opposition forces yesterday, as she addressed thousands of exuberant supporters following her release from years of house arrest.

“I want to hear the voice of the people, after that we will decide what we want to do,” she told a sea of followers outside her party headquarters. “I want to work with all democratic forces. I believe in human rights and I believe in the rule of law.”

The daughter of Burma’s independence hero carries a weight of expectation among supporters for a better future for the nation after almost half a century of military dictatorship.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner was freed on Saturday after spending most of the last two decades locked up, in a move greeted with jubilation by her followers and welcomed by rights groups and governments around the world.

A huge crowd gathered outside the headquarters of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy for the speech and television pictures showed her struggling to make her way through the throngs.

Thousands of her supporters had roared with approval on Saturday as Suu Kyi appeared for the first time outside her lakeside home after the end of her latest seven-year stretch of detention.

Many in the impoverished nation see the democracy icon as their best chance for freedom.

“Our country must become democratic. Our future depends on Aung San Suu Kyi,” said NLD youth leader Nyi Min. “She gives us hope and courage. Only she can free us from this anarchist regime.”

Many countries were quick to welcome her release, with US President Barack Obama hailing her as “a hero of mine”.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon described Suu Kyi as “an inspiration” to the world, but said the junta must release all political prisoners.

Setting her free is a huge gamble for Burma’s generals, and observers see it as an attempt to tame criticism of a controversial election last Sunday, the country’s first in 20 years.

Some had feared that the junta, whose proxies claimed overwhelming victory in the vote, would continue to put restrictions on the freedom of its number one enemy.

But the junta did not impose any restrictions on her release, according to a senior government official as well as her lawyer, Nyan Win.

Her sentence was extended last year over a bizarre incident in which an American swam uninvited to her lakeside home, sparking international condemnation and keeping her off the scene for last Sunday’s vote.

The pro-democracy leader swept her party to victory in a 1990 election, but it was never allowed to take power.

Suu Kyi’s struggle for her country has come at a high personal cost: her husband, British 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 not seen her two sons for about a decade and has never met her grandchildren.

Irish response

LABOUR Party president and foreign affairs spokes-person Michael D Higgins said he hoped Aung San Suu Kyi’s release would hasten the establishment of democracy in Burma.

“She is widely respected and admired in this country and many local authorities, including Dublin and Galway, have awarded her the freedom of their cities.

“I hope that she will be soon in a position to personally accept these awards,” said Mr Higgins.

As Dublin Lord Mayor, Labour councillor Mary Freehill conferred Suu Kyi with the Freedom in 2000. “I will be making arrangements with the current Lord Mayor and in co-operation with the Department of Foreign Affairs to issue an invitation to her come to Dublin and sign the roll.”

Trócaire director Justin Kilcullen said: “The international community has a huge role to play in the rebuilding of the country and the release of Aung San Suu Kyi will hopefully open avenues of communication internally and externally.”

Burma Action Ireland’s chairperson Keith Donald said: “While we very much welcome Aung San Suu Kyi’s release, it should not be seen as an indication that the military regime is interested in genuine progress towards reform and democracy.

“They should release all political prisoners and end the military offensives against the ethnic minorities.”

More in this section

Select your favourite newsletters and get the best of Irish Examiner delivered to your inbox