Burmese show defiance as democracy congress opens

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The Independent Online
Thousands gather to hear Suu Kyi after mass arrests by military leaders

Rangoon - Amid a swell in overt popular support defying the military regime, Aung San Suu Kyi opened an opposition congress yesterday that the government had tried to stop by arresting hundreds of her supporters. A defiant Ms Suu Kyi vowed to hold several more congresses.

Later, 8,000 people - four times the usual number and the biggest opposition crowd in years - gathered outside the gates of her compound to hear her customary weekend remarks. The size of the crowd indicated a renewed courage among the Burmese people, who many believed had been cowed by the regime.

Authorities made no move to interfere with the crowd. The only security forces visible were traffic police guiding vehicles away from the throng, which remained peaceful.

The crowd clapped and cheered as Ms Suu Kyi and other opposition leaders said they had tired of waiting for the State Law and Order Restoration Council to meet their appeals for dialogue.

"The Slorc has broken a lot of promises," Ms Suu Kyi said. "The Slorc should make up all the promises they have broken. It's time they changed their ways. It's better late than never."

Earlier, she delivered an opening conference speech that marked her biggest challenge to the ruling junta since her release last July from six years of house arrest. It signalled that she would no longer allow the regime to ignore her repeated calls for dialogue to bring democracy to Burma.

Rather than be cowed by a week of mass arrests, Ms Suu Kyi declared to the congress that her National League for Democracy would "increase our actions to fulfil the will of the people and bring about national reconciliation".

Though 300 supporters applauded every sentence and chanted "Long Live Aung San Suu Kyi", only 17 were original delegates to the party congress, the opposition's most important planned meeting in six years. At least 238 other delegates languished in detention following a nationwide round-up to prevent the meeting, which marks the sixth anniversary of parliamentary elections in 1990 when Ms Suu Kyi's party won 392 of 458 contested seats.

Another 24 party members were also in custody, bringing the total to 262, Ms Suu Kyi said. Reports that one delegate had died in custody were unfounded.

She said the conference would conclude tomorrow and refused to discuss the party policy being debated until it ended. She added that the next congress could be held as early as a few months from now - posing a new challenge to the legitimacy of the junta, which refused to honour the 1990 election and pulled out the stops to derail the current congress.

"This is no longer a meeting of elected representatives of the NLD," Ms Suu Kyi said. "We have decided, therefore, this will be the first in a series of NLD congresses."

The state-controlled press, which ignores Ms Suu Kyi's remarks, reported on business deals and junta leaders visiting Buddhist shrines.

Diplomats from the United States, Japan, France, Britain and Australia attended the meeting, evidence of a fresh wave of international support for Burma's beleaguered opposition.

Ms Suu Kyi declared that six years of denied rights and suffering had merely strengthened the appetite of Burma's people for democracy.

The party's chief policy would remain that the 1990 vote must be fully honoured, Ms Suu Kyi said. But she held out an olive branch to the junta.

"We not only invite the people of our country, but also the authorities, to join us," she said. "Because that is the only way we can bring good and happiness to our land."

Asked by reporters why the meeting was allowed at all, Ms Suu Kyi said: "It's always like that with the Slorc. They're not very consistent."