Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi said she is willing to work with the generals who imprisoned her and fellow democracy advocates in her first speech after being released from seven years of house arrest.
In a speech to thousands of supporters yesterday outside the headquarters of her National League for Democracy, Suu Kyi called for freedom of speech, human rights and economic reforms in Southeast Asia’s poorest country, according to news reports. She was freed on Nov. 13, six days after Myanmar’s first election in 20 years delivered a victory for a party backed by the military junta.
“I am prepared to talk with anyone,” Suu Kyi said in Yangon, Myanmar’s former capital, according to The Irrawaddy, an online magazine run by Myanmar exiles that’s based in Chiang Mai, Thailand. “I have no personal grudge toward anybody.”
The speech sets the tone for Suu Kyi, 65, to re-engage with her supporters after spending 15 of the past 21 years in detention. She plans to listen to the views of her fellow citizens and push for national reconciliation in the country formerly known as Burma, where 2,200 political prisoners are still behind bars, according to the Irrawaddy.
“I think we will have to sort out our differences across the table, talking to each other, agreeing to disagree, or finding out why we disagree and trying to remove the sources of our disagreement,” Suu Kyi told BBC World Service radio in an yesterday. “There are so many things that we have to talk about.”
“She’s tried to strike a reconciliatory tone but it’s not going to be smooth sailing ahead,” said Thant Myint-U, a Myanmar historian and former United Nations official, in a telephone interview from Bangkok. “Whereas 15 years ago the government was very fearful of Western sanctions, it’s hard to make the same case now when there is much greater economic integration between Burma and the rest of the region, for better or for worse.”
Suu Kyi’s release meets a key demand of Western nations that impose sanctions against the Myanmar government for human-rights abuses. President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron issued statements on Nov. 13 welcoming her release, with both leaders calling it “long overdue.”
“It is time for the Burmese regime to release all political prisoners, not just one,” Obama said.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Nov. 13 that his nation will retain “the toughest sanctions in the world against the Burmese regime to indicate its condemnation of the regime’s complete disregard for human rights and its repression of the country’s democratic movement.”
Suu Kyi indicated she wanted to mend relations with several former party members who ignored her call to boycott the election and created a new party to participate.
“I want to work with all democratic forces,” Suu Kyi said, according to Agence France-Presse. “I believe in human rights and I believe in the rule of law.”
The junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party, formed by Prime Minister Thein Sein, won the Nov. 7 election, a vote condemned by the UN for excluding Suu Kyi and her colleagues. The poll was Myanmar’s first since the National League for Democracy won a landslide victory two decades ago in a result nullified by the junta.
‘Not the Case’
“It’s an attempt on the part of the government to convince the international community that between the elections a week ago and the release of Suu Kyi this past weekend that it’s somehow turned the corner on human rights in the country,” said Benjamin Zawacki, Myanmar researcher for Amnesty International. “That clearly is not the case.”
Elected lawmakers in both houses will each be able to nominate a presidential hopeful to compete against the candidate picked by military-appointed legislators. Than Shwe, the 77-year-old junta leader, remains eligible to be president even though he didn’t stand in the election.
The U.S. maintains trade and financial sanctions against the regime, and legislators are pushing Obama to start targeting banks that hold offshore accounts for junta leaders. Europe has less stringent restrictions in place.
China, India and Thailand are investing in Myanmar’s ports, railways and oil and gas pipelines to gain access to their neighbor’s natural resources and trade routes in the Indian Ocean. Suu Kyi’s release “marks another important step in the national reconciliation and democratization process,” Thailand’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which Myanmar is a member, called the Nov. 7 election “a significant step” in the country’s path to democracy, according to a statement from Vietnam, which holds the rotating chairmanship. China welcomed the smooth election, Xinhua reported, citing Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei.
Italian-Thai Development Pcl, Thailand’s biggest construction company, signed an $8.6 billion contract this month with Myanmar to build a deep-sea port and industrial estate. Earlier this year, China National Petroleum Corp. started building oil and gas pipelines across the country, and India approved plans for Oil & Natural Gas Corp. and GAIL India Ltd. to invest $1.3 billion in a natural gas project.
“I’m not sure Western governments know exactly what they should do next,” Thant said. “With the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, which has been one of their key demands for a long time, this should be a time to at least rethink sanctions.”