Suu Kyi, freed from house arrest, vows to fight for democracy

YANGON, Myanmar -- Aung San Suu Kyi returned to public life Monday after 19 months of house arrest, breathing new life into the opposition's struggle for democracy but aware that Myanmar's military rulers will be loathe to give up their iron grip on power.

Thousands of cheering supporters, including monks, nuns with shaved heads and ordinary people, greeted the beaming opposition leader and Nobel peace laureate, who said she will do "everything I can to bring democracy" to the country.

Her hair pulled back and tied with a garland of flowers, the petite Suu Kyi, 56, appeared radiant while she addressed a news conference at her party headquarters.

The European Union and the United States, which had been pressing for Suu Kyi's release, hailed the move. President Bush said he hoped Suu Kyi's release will lead to the restoration of democracy.

International pressure

"All parties should seize this opportunity to press ahead with the urgent work of restoring the rule of law and basic political and civil rights for all Burmese," Bush said.

Suu Kyi drove from her lakeside villa around noon, the car inching its way through a huge crowd of supporters and party workers wearing white shirts and sarongs and chanting "Long Live Aung San Suu Kyi."

She said her release had been dubbed "a new dawn" for the country.

"We only hope that the dawn will move very quickly to a full morning," said Suu Kyi.

Her release is seen partly to be the result of intense international pressure, including the severe economic sanctions imposed by the West on the impoverished country in a bid to force political change.

Suu Kyi said the policies of her party would be maintained for now, implying that she still supported sanctions and bans on aid to Myanmar until democracy is established.

The sanctions have caused increased unemployment and the departure of international firms haven't helped the Myanmar economy, already in a shambles. The United States had stopped all aid to the country and the European Union has had an arms embargo and a suspension of bilateral aid for the past 11 years.

Corporations cut ties

Since 1995, more than 50 multinational corporations including PepsiCo, Wal-Mart, Texaco and ARCO have cut ties with Myanmar. In 2000, the U.N. International Labor Organization increased the pressure on the junta by exposing the pervasive use of "forced labor" throughout the country.

The military has been in power in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, since 1962. The current group of generals took over in 1988 after crushing a pro-democracy uprising that saw Suu Kyi come into prominence.

The junta put Suu Kyi under house arrest in 1989 and called elections in 1990. It nullified the results after Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy won overwhelmingly.

Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, was freed from house arrest in 1995 but was banned from traveling outside the capital, Yangon. She defied the order in September 2000, resulting in the latest round of house arrest.

But even while keeping her confined to the house, the junta began reconciliation talks with Suu Kyi in October 2000, brokered by U.N. special envoy Razali Ismail, who made his seventh trip to Myanmar last month.

Razali told The Associated Press on Monday that he expects democracy to return in "a couple of years" in Myanmar in terms of an elected government.

The junta, which said Suu Kyi will be free to carry out her political activities, said Monday "marks a new page for the people of Myanmar and the international community" and said it looks forward to improving the "social welfare of our diverse people."

Although the junta has complied with a major Western demand by releasing Suu Kyi, it does not mean democracy is around the corner in Myanmar, also known as Burma.

The government is not expected to call elections and it is not clear what shape its cooperation with Suu Kyi will take place. Suu Kyi denied that she has accepted a role in the government but said her party is "flexible" to make sure the people benefit.

"The next step is discussions about policy," Suu Kyi said.

In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Suu Kyi's release "provides fresh momentum to the ... national reconciliation progress."

Suu Kyi said she will now hold renewed negotiations with the generals to search for democracy.

"Both sides agree that the phase of confidence building is over. We look forward to moving on," she said.

Suu Kyi said there will be no restrictions on her movements around the country, unlike 1995. The government also said she will be allowed to travel everywhere but will be provided security.

She said political prisoners -- believed by rights groups to number around 1,500 -- were high on her agenda but that she was "disappointed with the slow rate of releases."

The military government has released more than 200 political prisoners since October 2000, when Suu Kyi began secret talks with the regime.

Asked about the current political climate, Suu Kyi joked to reporters in the sweltering room: "It's very hot don't you think?"

After the one-hour conference, Suu Kyi spent about three hours with leaders of her party before returning home. In the evening, as the temperature dropped, she drove out again to the gold domed Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar's most important Buddhist temple, to pray.

On the Net:

Myanmar government Web site,

Burma Project Web site,