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Aung San Suu Kyi speaks to joyous crowds in Myanmar

A day after her release from detention, opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi on Sunday met dozens of ambassadors, hundreds of journalists and thousands of Myanmar citizens, underscoring the importance of dialogue, strength and determination in the battle for democracy in her country.

As a jubilant crowd swelled in front of the headquarters of her disbanded National League for Democracy party, traffic ground to a halt, and people perched in trees, on fences and on vehicle roofs for a look at their charismatic leader.

Her eventual appearance at noon in the doorway of the ramshackle building electrified the audience. “I understand what the people want; they want democracy,” she said to a roar from the crowd. “You must make your voices heard. Only then can we take action.”

Suu Kyi, 65, had been detained by the military-led government for 15 of the last 21 years. She was freed days after a controversial parliamentary election in which the pro-regime Union Solidarity and Development Party garnered about 80% of the parliamentary seats. Suu Kyi boycotted the election, a decision some members of her party disagreed with, and they fielded candidates under the banner of another party.

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During her 45-minute speech and a separate meeting with about two dozen ambassadors Sunday, she stressed her willingness to speak with all political parties, reach out to the country’s many ethnic groups and open a dialogue with the military government.

“I am prepared to talk with anyone,” she said.

The military government imposed no restrictions on her release, she told diplomats, and she planned to travel around Myanmar and go overseas once she’d caught up on her business in Yangon.

On Saturday, Norway’s Nobel committee invited Suu Kyi to make a belated acceptance speech for the prize she won 19 years ago but was unable to pick up because she was under house arrest. The committee said it would ask Myanmar for an assurance she’d be let back in if she made the trip.

Suu Kyi told reporters that she would reconsider her support of economic sanctions against Myanmar if asked to by the public. The country faces U.S. and European Union sanctions for its human rights record, with more than 2,000 political prisoners still in detention.

“The U.S. position is that [sanctions] can be put on the table,” said Larry Dinger, the de facto U.S. ambassador to Myanmar, also known as Burma. “She was very clear she’d like the international community to have one voice and work with the government here, acknowledging that the differences are great but they need to be bridged.”

Suu Kyi has come under some criticism domestically for her support of sanctions, which have put tens of thousands of mostly female textile workers out of jobs even as the military and its associates grow rich trading with China and neighboring Southeast Asian nations.

In the intense heat of the midday assembly, a monk fainted and many in the crowd covered their heads with makeshift newspaper hats. Scores of undercover security people busily recorded the attendees on camera. But the uniformed police stayed away, and there was no overt intimidation in a country ruled by the military for the last 48 years.

Suu Kyi, in a green blouse and patterned longyi, the traditional sarong worn here by men and women, urged the crowd to engage politically and get fired up. At one point, as part of the crowd started pushing, masses of people chanted, “Be disciplined!” at the offenders.

The crowd’s size and enthusiasm laid to rest any concerns that Suu Kyi would be sidelined politically after years out of public view. “I’m so happy to see her,” said a retired civil servant there. “In fact, I was crying. I’ve waited so many years for this moment.”

Suu Kyi offered few specifics. Asked what her next political move was, she said, “We’re moving all the time.” About the political landscape, she quipped, “I don’t see a landscape. Look outside, all you see are people.”

But she slammed the regime for alleged vote fraud in the Nov. 7 parliamentary election. Democracy must be inclusive, she told supporters, not some system controlled by one man, an obvious reference to the powerful Senior Gen. Than Shwe.

Asked whether her popularity and speeches threatened the military regime, she deflected the question with a joke. “I don’t look so threatening, do I?” Suu Kyi said.

Party officials said they were heartened by the huge turnout. “They very much love the Lady,” said Nyan Win, spokesman of the party, which was forced to disband after it decided to boycott the election. “It shows that the people of Burma don’t like the junta.”

Giving her showcase speech at the decaying headquarters building signaled her desire to reinvigorate the party that saw its landslide electoral victory in 1990 negated by military leaders intent on maintaining their grip on power.

Although the ruling generals may have let Suu Kyi out in hopes of burnishing their tarnished image or to try to convince outsiders that they follow the rules and laws, some worry that she could land back in detention on some pretext in the future, as she has before.

“We don’t care much” if she’s rearrested, said U Win Tin, a party leader who has spent 18 years of his life in prison for crossing the regime. “She needs to meet people and help those in need, and the government may not like it. At the same time, she’s very careful. She’s well versed in this.”

The writer is unidentified to protect those who work with him.


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