YANGON, Myanmar — Myanmar democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, freed from seven years of house arrest, told thousands of wildly cheering supporters Sunday that she would continue to fight for human rights and the rule of law in the military-controlled nation. She called for face-to-face talks with the junta’s leader.
However, the measured tone of her remarks indicated she is well aware she is walking a tightrope in balancing the expectations of the country’s democracy movement and the realities of limited freedom under a tough military regime.
Speaking to a crowd of more than 5,000 people at the dilapidated headquarters of her political party — the first stop for the Nobel Peace Prize laureate after leaving the lakeside residence that had been her prison — she urged her followers to work for national reconciliation.
“If we want to get what we want, we have to do it in the right way; otherwise we will not achieve our goal however noble or correct it may be,” she cautioned.
Suu Kyi, 65, has come to symbolize the struggle for democracy in the isolated and secretive nation once known as Burma, which has been ruled by the military since 1962.
Energized as her supporters are, she still faces a military determined to cling to power, and any collision between the two could well land her back where she was until this weekend — house arrest and isolation.
The top-ranking U.S. diplomat in Myanmar, Charge d’Affaires Larry Dinger, was among diplomats who met with her after her release.
He said she spoke about the need for pragmatism and unity. The absence of fire-breathing rhetoric was no surprise to him.
“She’s made clear to us that she’s a pragmatic politician who wants to find pragmatic solutions to this country’s problems,” he said.
She told reporters her message to junta leader Gen. Than Shwe was, “Let’s speak to each other directly.”
The two last met in secret talks in 2002 at the encouragement of the United Nations.
“I am for national reconciliation. I am for dialogue.
“Whatever authority I have, I will use it to that end. I hope people will support me,” she said.
Aside from political snares, Suu Kyi also faces possible threats to her personal well-being.
In a 2003 incident that preceded her most recent detention, pro-junta thugs ambushed her motorcade, killing and brutalizing supporters in what many believed was a military-orchestrated attempt on her life.
The Irish rock band U2, who have long campaigned for her freedom, expressed “cautious joy” at her release, explaining that it still feared for her safety.
“We can only pray that those in the junta who decided on her release will start to see sense and seize this opportunity to begin a genuine dialogue towards democracy,” the band said on its website.
Suu Kyi entered the small compound of her National League for Democracy Sunday morning as people shouted “We love Suu” amid thunderous applause.
“I believe in human rights and I believe in the rule of law.
I will always fight for these things,” she said in her speech to the crowd.
“I want to work with all democratic forces and I need the support of the people.”
She said she bore no grudge against those who had held her in detention for more than 15 of the last 21 years, adding that she had been well-treated.
Suu Kyi thanked her followers and asked them to pray for those still imprisoned by the junta. Human rights groups say the government holds more than 2,200 political prisoners.
“If my people are not free, how can I say I am free? Either we are all free together or we are not free together,” she said.
Speaking of her isolation while under house arrest, Suu Kyi said she “always felt free within myself. I kept myself pretty much on an even keel.” But she said that for years she had only listened to the radio, adding “I’d like to listen to human voices.”
Her release came just days after an election that was swept by the ruling junta’s proxy political party and decried by Western nations as a sham designed to perpetuate authoritarian control.
Many observers have questioned whether her release was timed by the junta to distract the world’s attention from the Nov. 7 polls.
Suu Kyi has said she would help probe allegations of voting fraud, according to Nyan Win, who is a spokesman for her party, which was officially disbanded for refusing to register for the polls.
Myanmar’s last elections in 1990 were won overwhelmingly by her National League for Democracy, but the military refused to hand over power and instead clamped down on opponents.
Suu Kyi took up the democracy struggle in 1988, as mass demonstrations were breaking out against 25 years of military rule. She was quickly thrust into a leadership role, mainly because she was the daughter of Aung San, who led Myanmar to independence from Britain before his assassination by political rivals.
She rode out the military’s bloody suppression of street demonstrations to help found the NLD. Her defiance gained her fame and honour, most notably the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize.
In 1989, she was detained on national security charges and put under house arrest. Her freedom had been a key demand of Western nations and groups critical of the military regime’s poor human rights record, which includes brutal military campaigns against ethnic minorities.
Associated Press writer Grant Peck in Bangkok and video journalist Jason Dorn in Washington contributed to this report.