The Burmese dissident and Nobel Peace laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, marked her release from six years of house arrest in Rangoon by calling for talks with the military regime which had kept her imprisoned.
In a call for national reconciliation with Burma's military rulers, Ms Suu Kyi said, "We have to choose between dialogue and utter devastation." She told a press conference at the rambling family house where she was held, "I, on my part, bear no resentment towards anybody for anything that happened to me during the past six years."
A frail, thin woman, Ms Suu Kyi, 50, had spent her detention meditating and reading books on philosophy and religion. Now she is ready to fight for democracy's return. "I would like to take the opportunity to urge authorities to release those of us who still remain in prison," she emphasised.
Human rights monitors claim that the military regime, which has ruled Burma since 1962, has jailed over 1,000 Buddhist monks, lawyers, journalists and supporters of Ms Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD), which in the 1990 elections won a landslide victory. The junta crushed the party before it could take power.
After the press conference, a beaming Ms Suu Kyi peered over the wall of her house and waved to hundreds of delighted well-wishers. Down the road, however, police kept watch on her supporters. Later, she saw the few senior officials of her NLD party who were not in jail or chased into exile. Ms Suu Kyi said she wants to meet members of the ruling military council to establish "a joint approach to the ills besetting the country".
In Rangoon, celebrations for her release were discreet, fearful. One student activist, after hearing of Aung San Suu Kyi's release, walked around the university campus. "I went there expecting crowds of joyful students. But there was nothing, no movement. People are still too scared," he told the Independent on the telephone. Many Burmese were perplexed that the local state-controlled media failed to mention the junta's change of heart. "People are picking up what they can on the foreign radio broadcasts and spreading the news after they've prayed at pagodas. It's the safest way to meet in public," the activist said.
In Washington, a White House spokesman said that the Clinton administration hoped that the Nobel peace prize-winner's release "signals the Burmese government's commitment to free all political prisoners and engage in a genuine dialogue with all political forces in Burma". The Foreign Office, too, had lobbied hard for Ms Suu Kyi to be set free. She is married to an Oxford academic, Michael Aris, and their two children hold British passports.
The generals, perhaps, are no longer scared of this demure but strong- willed woman. During Ms Suu Kyi's captivity, the ruling State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) has crushed all dissent. The democratic forces she led to the 1990 election victory are scattered, while the various ethnic rebel groups operating in the jungles along Burma's borders have either been partially smashed by the army or lured into signing truces. The younger generals are also abandoning the old economic model which was based on the Buddhist metaphysics and xenophobia of the old dictator, General Ne Win, and which bankrupted Burma.
Friends of Ms Suu Kyi say her defiance of the military dictatorship has not ebbed during the past six years. But she noted yesterday that blacks and whites in South Africa were once bitter enemies. "There is more in common between the authorities and we of the democratic forces in Burma than existed between the black and white peoples of South Africa."
Section Two, page 2Reuse content