'You must eat rice to give you strength for the struggle ahead'

Supporters receive a message of hope from their heroine
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The Independent Online

Her message was of solidarity and hope. Relaxed and smiling, with flowers in her hair, Burma's democracy heroine Aung San Suu Kyi greeted her legions of followers yesterday with only the future in mind.

Released on Saturday from detention that has spanned two decades, Ms Suu Kyi did not waste a second of her 45-minute address dwelling on the hardships she has endured. She spoke instead of the love she has for her people and the work they must do, together, to realise their dream of a democratic Burma.

"Please do not give up hope. There is no reason to lose heart. Even if you are not political, politics will come to you," she told the masses crammed before her, pouring with sweat on a hot, clear day in Rangoon. "None of us can do it alone. We must work together."

Her voice clear and warm, her speech unscripted, she delighted the heaving crowd in front of the headquarters of her National League for Democracy (NLD) party with candour and humour. She called on Burma's military rulers to diffuse power to the people, and said she wanted direct talks with her jailer, Than Shwe, the military junta leader who has kept her in detention for 15 of the past 21 years.

"We are not used to talking like this!" gasped a 19-year-old girl in the crowd of some 10,000, mesmerised by her first experience of free speech in a country locked under military dictatorship for nearly half a century.

In a sea-green jacket and traditional Burmese silk sarong, a garland of jasmine flowers around her neck, 65-year-old Ms Suu Kyi stood on a platform behind the rusting gate of her party's dilapidated offices and struck up an easy rapport with the crowd. The seven long years of her latest incarceration seemed to melt away as her message of hope re-energised her supporters.

Certainly, she had lost none of her famous charisma or her gift for connecting with people. "So many of you have mobile phones!" she cried. "You didn't have them last time!" She somehow managed to single out individuals among the sea of faces for a look or a smile. In one extraordinary moment, she locked eyes with a young, bare-chested activist in the heart of the crowd who raised his clenched, tattooed fist in response.

"You must go away and eat a lot of rice, to give you strength for the struggle ahead!" said Ms Suu Kyi, to laughter and applause. She said she was concerned about the hardships they faced; she would listen to them, and to all parties interested in a better future for Burma. She would consult, she said, and talk to Western nations about lifting sanctions which have further crippled south-east Asia's poorest nation.

Ms Suu Kyi and senior NLD members had met until 10 o'clock the previous night, mapping out a future strategy for the party which won Burma's 1990 elections but was never allowed to take power. But her mission in her first public speech was not to detail policy, but to reconnect with her people, to tell them she was still with them and would not forsake them now.

Making a little joke about parliamentary elections held a week ago, which were boycotted by the NLD and rigged in favour of the pro-military Union Solidarity and Development Party, she held up a sign, in blue felt-tip, reading: "I love the Burmese people" with a tick beside it and her name beneath. Like everything else she did and said, the gesture drew rapturous applause.

Back inside her headquarters, she addressed the media in a small, hot room with ceiling fans whirring overhead. She deflected questions about her incarceration at her lakeside home, where she has been held with little contact with the outside world since May 2003. A short-wave radio, a few letters, a monthly visit from her doctor, and occasional meetings with her lawyer were all she was allowed.

"I think I managed to keep myself on a fairly even keel," she said, using her precise, idiomatic English from her days as the wife of Oxford academic Michael Aris, who died of prostate cancer in 1999. Mr Aris was denied a visa to visit his wife before he died, and Ms Suu Kyi made the painful decision not to travel to England, fearing she would not be allowed back into Burma.

Her two sons, Alexander and Kim, now in their 30s, have been barred from visiting her for a decade. She had managed to speak to Kim by phone, she said, her face softening. And she told her supporters that until her country was free, her own liberty would mean little.

That work started yesterday. Over green tea, she held more consultations with her party leaders and talked to foreign diplomats. She set up a party committee to investigate allegations of fraud in the 7 November elections, and called on General Than Shwe to open a dialogue with her.

"My message is: let's speak directly. Everything starts with dialogue and exchange," she said, refusing to be drawn into outright criticism of the junta's leaders. She said she bore no antagonism towards the military authorities, and had been treated well by individual security officers.

Than Shwe has shown no interest in the past in speaking to Ms Suu Kyi, the daughter of independence hero General Aung San. She still commands immense popularity across Burma despite her years hidden from sight. The senior general is said to detest the Nobel Peace laureate, the most potent threat to his grip on power, and cannot bear to hear her name uttered.

Although Ms Suu Kyi's lawyer, Nyan Win, has said her release came without conditions, the regime is unlikely to allow her to resume her political activities unhindered, and may jump on any perceived misdemeanour to detain her once more.

The last time she was released, in 2002, Ms Suu Kyi and her party travelled the country. In May 2003, her convoy was attacked by a government mob and more than 70 of her supporters were killed. The authorities then detained her "for her own protection".

Dissenters still behind bars

Zarganar, Burma's most famous comedian, is serving a 35-year sentence after he was arrested for giving an interview to the media criticising the military's slow response to Cyclone Nargis. The artist is being held in Myitkyina jail. The junta recently refused him permission to attend his father's funeral. A new documentary about him by British documentary maker Rex Bloomstein, This Prison Where I Live, has just been released. "While we rejoice at Ms Suu Kyi's release, let us remember the 2200 political prisoners who rot in Burma's jails," said Mr Bloomstein. "Amongst them is Zarganar, the country's greatest comedian, who has been described as "the loudspeaker" for his people, and one of the most inspiring men I have ever filmed."

Min Ko Naing, a former student leader who was first jailed after the failed 1988 democracy uprisings, was again arrested after leading demonstrations in the summer of 2007 with others of the 88 Students Generation Group. The peaceful protests preceded that autumn's Saffron Uprising, when thousands of monks and ordinary citizens took to the streets. The activist is serving a 65-year sentence in Kengtung prison in Shan State.

Su Su Nway is a female labour rights activist who is serving an eight-and-half year sentence after raising a banner criticising Burma's government. She was arrested in late 2007after she and a colleague hung a banner near a hotel in Rangoon which read: "Oppose those relying on China, acting as thieves, holding murderous views."