Aung San Suu Kyi calls for freedom of speech

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The Independent Online

Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi addressed thousands of supporters today, the day after her release from house arrest.

The 65-year-old told a vast crowd outside her party's offices in Rangoon: "The basis of democratic freedom is freedom of speech."

She also told them: "If we want to get what we want, we have to do it in the right way."

The veteran human rights campaigner, who has been detained for 15 of the last 21 years, added that she had "no antagonism" towards her captors and that she had been well treated during her captivity.

Ms Suu Kyi was earlier greeted by thousands of cheering people as she arrived at the headquarters of her political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD).

She was freed yesterday by the country's military rulers, with world leaders including Prime Minister David Cameron and US president Barack Obama hailing the move.

Her lawyer Nyan Win said: "This is an unconditional release. No restrictions are placed on her."

Arriving by car from the lakeside residence that has been her prison, she slipped into the party headquarters today as people shouted "We love Suu" amid thunderous applause.

Ms Suu Kyi told supporters: "Democracy is when the people keep a government in check."

She added: "Please do not give up hope. There is no reason to lose heart.

"Even if you are not political, politics will come to you."

Her release came a week after the country's first elections in 20 years, which handed victory to the pro-military party but were condemned as a sham by critics.

Ms Suu Kyi's NLD party won the election in 1990 but was never allowed to take power. She has been largely under house arrest or in prison ever since.

It is not yet clear what political role she will now play in the country, which has been ruled by the military since 1962.

Human rights campaigners warned that the release should not be interpreted as a concession by the military junta.

Amnesty International's secretary general Salil Shetty said: "The fact remains that authorities should never have arrested her or the many other prisoners of conscience in Burma in the first place, locking them out of the political process."

But her release was welcomed by Prime Minister David Cameron and US president Barack Obama as "long overdue".

Mr Cameron said Ms Suu Kyi's detention had been a "travesty".

Referring to yesterday, he said: "This is long overdue. Aung San Suu Kyi is an inspiration for all of us who believe in freedom of speech, democracy and human rights.

"Freedom is Aung San Suu Kyi's right. The Burmese regime must now uphold it."

Mr Obama described the campaigner as his "hero", adding: "Whether Aung San Suu Kyi is living in the prison of her house, or the prison of her country, does not change the fact that she, and the political opposition she represents, has been systematically silenced."

In her first public appearance yesterday, Ms Suu Kyi indicated she would continue with her political activity but did not specify whether she would challenge the military with mass rallies and other activities that led to her earlier detentions.

"We have a lot of things to do," she said.

But while her release thrilled her supporters, many observers have questioned whether it was timed by the junta to distract the world's attention from the election.

It is also thought unlikely that the ruling generals will allow the campaigner, who drew huge crowds of supporters during her few periods of freedom, to actively and publicly pursue her goal of bringing democracy to the nation.

Ms Suu Kyi's British relatives celebrated her release.

Her brother-in-law Adrian Phillips said: "At long last she's free".

Although she now has her freedom, it is likely be some time before Ms Suu Kyi - whose late husband, the British scholar Michael Aris, died of prostate cancer in 1999 at 53 - sees her two sons.

The youngest, Kim, 33, who still lives in the UK and has not seen his mother in 10 years, has been awaiting her release in Bangkok, Thailand.

He has yet to be granted a Burmese visa which will mean it may be some time before he is reunited with his mother.

Her eldest son is understood to live in the US.

Speaking from Warminster, Wiltshire, Mr Phillips, 68, said her release represented a "happy day".

He added: "We are obviously very pleased if it means we can contact her again after so many years of silence.

"The last time I spoke to her was when her husband died in 1999. There are all sorts of family matters that we haven't been able to talk to her about. She has a granddaughter, Jasmine, who she has never seen."

Mr Phillips, whose wife Lucinda is the sister of Ms Suu Kyi's late husband, said he was hoping to go to Burma to visit her himself.

Relatives have yet to hear from her directly but expect to make contact "in due course".

Ms Suu Kyi had been due for release last year but was convicted for violating the terms of her previous detention by briefly sheltering an American man who swam uninvited across a lake to her home.

She took up the democracy struggle in 1988 and was thrust into a leadership role primarily because she was the daughter of martyred independence leader General Aung San.

She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990, having been detained on national security charges and put under house arrest the previous year.

She was released in 1995 but has spent much of the time since then in detention, either in jail or under house arrest.

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