Burma’s newly freed democracy icon, Aung San Suu Kyi, returned to work for the first time in years on Monday as she knuckled down to the task of rebuilding her weakened party.
A smiling Suu Kyi arrived at her party’s headquarters in Rangoon where she was due to meet senior regional members of her National League for Democracy (NLD), as dozens of plain-clothed policemen were seen near the building.
Suu Kyi was freed from house arrest on Saturday, less than a week after a controversial election that cemented the junta’s decades-long grip on power but was widely criticised by democracy activists and Western leaders as a sham.
The Nobel Peace Prize winner, who has been locked up by Burma’s regime for 15 of the past 21 years, gave her first political speech in seven years on Sunday, appealing to thousands of her jubilant supporters for unity.
She also told reporters she was willing to meet junta chief Than Shwe and talk through their differences.
“We have asked since the beginning for dialogue. She is always ready for dialogue,” Nyan Win, a spokesperson for the NLD, told Agence France-Presse (AFP) on Monday.
When asked whether a letter would be sent to Than Shwe to request a meeting, he said: “I don’t know.”
Crumbling lakeside mansion
After having only limited contact with the outside world for most of the past two decades, Suu Kyi’s telephone line at her crumbling lakeside mansion will be restored “soon”, an unnamed Burma official told AFP.
Nyan Win said the mother-of-two is also hoping that her youngest son, Kim Aris, will be able travel to Rangoon and join her on a visit to Shwedagon temple, the site of Suu Kyi’s first political speech in 1988.
Kim Aris, who lives in Britain, is currently in the Thai capital trying to arrange a visa to Burma. He spoke to his mother by telephone shortly after her release.
On the political front, attention is now focused on whether Suu Kyi can unite the country’s deeply divided opposition and bring change to the impoverished nation.
“I want to work with all democratic forces,” she told her supporters on Sunday, saying she wanted to “hear the voice of the people” before deciding her course of action.
The daughter of the nation’s assassinated independence hero carries a weight of expectations among her followers for a better future after almost half a century of military dictatorship.
New air of optimism
There was a new air of optimism on the streets of Rangoon but some observers have warned that the dissident is no “miracle worker”.
“She has always voluntarily tested the military authorities, has always wanted to push the red line drawn by the regime,” said Renaud Egreteau, a Burma expert at the University of Hong Kong.
But with a powerful junta watching her every move, the situation “might make her avoid a direct confrontation for the time being”, he added.
Suu Kyi said in a BBC interview that an NLD committee would investigate all complaints about the November 7 poll, after opposition parties complained of cheating and voter intimidation by the regime-backed party.
“From what I have heard there are many many questions about the fairness of the election and there are many many allegations of vote-rigging and so on,” she said.
Suu Kyi’s party boycotted the vote, a decision that deeply split the opposition. Some former members of her party left to stand in the poll, prompting accusations of betrayal from some of her closest associates.
The opposition leader also appeared to soften her stance on the international sanctions that have isolated Burma, saying she wants to “talk to all the people concerned”.
Suu Kyi swept her party to victory in a 1990 election, but it was never allowed to take power.
Her struggle for her country has come at a high personal cost: her British husband 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 never met her grandchildren. — AFP