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Suu Kyi urges supporters not to lose hope

Suu Kyi speaks to supporters the day after her release

Just a day after her release, pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is already encouraging people to stand up for their rights in Myanmar.

On Sunday she addressed the thousands of supporters gathered in front of her party’s headquarters; it was her first major speech after the end of a seven-year house arrest sentence.

“The basis of democratic freedom is freedom of speech. Even if you are not political, politics will come to you,” said the 65-year-old Nobel Peace Prize winner. Despite the fact that the military junta had detained her for 15 of the past 21 years, Suu Kyi said she felt no antagonism toward it.

The Swiss foreign ministry has welcomed Suu Kyi’s release and asked that Myanmar restore her basic human and civil rights such freedom of expression, association and movement.

In a short statement published on Saturday, the foreign ministry noted that Myanmar had at least 2,100 political prisoners and reiterated its appeal that they be freed immediately.

Political climate

A week ago, Myanmar held its first election in 20 years. Won by the military’s Union Solidarity and Development Party, the vote was widely seen as rigged to ensure victory for the general’s ruling party.

The Swiss foreign ministry said “the very extensive constraints placed on the selection of candidates and the heavy restrictions imposed on the freedoms of association and expression left no room for a fair election campaign”.

When a reporter asked Suu Kyi what message she had for supreme leader Senior General Than Shwe on Sunday, she replied, “Let’s meet and talk”.

A member of the National League for Democracy (NLD), Suu Kyi urged supporters to be more politically assertive in Myanmar, the ex-British colony formerly known as Burma. It has been under military rule for the past 48 years.

“You have to stand up for what is right – a one-woman-show is not democracy,” said Suu Kyi, the daughter of Commander Aung San, Myanmar’s independence hero.

The NLD won the country’s 1990 elections by a landslide, but has never been allowed to govern. After deciding not to contest Sunday’s election, the party was disbanded by the junta.

The lady

Affectionately known as “The Lady”, Suu Kyi appeared before the crowd in traditional dress and with flowers in her hair.

“I know I said I wanted to hear what the public is thinking, but now that there are so many voices and so much noise, I don’t know what is being said anymore,” joked Suu Kyi, who is expected to rebuild the NLD.

While speaking with reporters, she commented on the sanctions that many say are hurting Myanmar, which is rich in natural resources.

“If people really want sanctions to be lifted, I will consider this,” she said. “This is the time Burma needs help. We ask everyone to help us. Western nations. Eastern nations. The whole world … it all starts with dialogue.”

It is estimated that a third of the 50 million people in Myanmar are living in poverty, partly because of the economic problems caused by the sanctions.

Next steps

Léon de Riedmatten, president of Swiss NGO Fairness International, has been supporting Suu Kyi’s cause for years now.

As he told the Lausanne-based newspaper Le Matin on Sunday, he was delighted but not surprised by her release – noting that those in power tended to do things by the book in Myanmar.

De Riedmatten, who spent seven years in Myanmar, said he did not think that Suu Kyi would make any concessions.

“In 2002, I was with her three days before [that] release and she said she preferred to remain detained rather than making any political concessions. She is inflexible,” said de Riedmatten, who has stayed in touch with Suu Kyi through messengers. During her house arrest, she had no use of a telephone and her visitors were restricted.

De Riedmatten suggested that Suu Kyi might act as a mediator once she had adjusted to her newfound freedom.

“She must take time to feel the current climate and consult her supporters before engaging [in debate], perhaps as a mediator,” he said.

Suu Kyi’s release might cause disturbances in the country, according to Laurence Fehlmann Rielle, president of the Swiss-Burma Association.

Also quoted in Le Matin’s Sunday edition, she said:

“Her presence alone will galvanise the people, stunned by the suppression of the monks who revolted in 2007 as well as by the recent elections. One can picture her as a mediator between the government and leaders of the NLD and ethnic minorities.”

Myanmar, formerly Burma, has been under military rule since 1962.

The country has faced political and economic isolation since the military refused to recognise the results of a democratic election in 1990, won by the pro-democracy National League for Democracy of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

Foreign donors are reluctant to invest, saying the country’s human rights record is abysmal. Most have urged the junta to ensure the November 7 election is free, fair and inclusive and an estimated 2,200 political prisoners are released beforehand.

Neighbouring China is its biggest political and economic ally and has capitalised on the West’s reluctance to trade with the junta. It relies heavily on Myanmar for its energy needs and backs the regime in the international arena.

Switzerland supports international organisations and Swiss NGOs aiding Myanmar refugees living in camps in Thailand as well as internally displaced ethnic minorities.

The Swiss government, in step with the European Union, has adopted sanctions against members of the Myanmar regime and people closely associated with it (including a freeze on assets, and a ban on entering Switzerland).

The Swiss foreign ministry says the Swiss government has repeatedly expressed its concern about the human rights situation in Myanmar, including at the UN General Assembly and the Human Rights Council.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR