- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 7, 2002

RANGOON, Burma Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, freed to a tumultuous welcome by thousands of cheering supporters yesterday after 19 months of house arrest, pledged to do all she could to return democracy to military-ruled Burma.

"It's a new dawn for the country. We only hope the dawn will move very quickly," Mrs. Suu Kyi told reporters at a news conference at her party headquarters.

Although hailed internationally, the release did not mean the government was prepared to give up power and call elections quickly.

Mrs. Suu Kyi said she will hold renewed negotiations with the generals to build on the closed-door talks she has been having with them for the past 18 months, describing the parleys as confidence-building steps.

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

Her release had been one of the main demands of the West, which had placed severe economic sanctions on the impoverished country to force political change. The sanctions have caused increased unemployment, and the departures of international firms have undercut Burma's economy. The United States had stopped all aid to the country.

Since 1995, more than 50 multinational corporations including Pepsico, Wal-Mart, Texaco and ARCO have cut ties with Burma. 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.

After her release, Mrs. Suu Kyi arrived at the ramshackle building housing her National League for Democracy party, where a huge crowd of cheering supporters welcomed her a few hours after her release was announced by the junta.

The 56-year-old Nobel Peace laureate drove out of her lakeside villa in a white Toyota sedan, which inched its way through the crowds of party workers in white shirts and sarongs, chanting "Long Live Aung San Suu Kyi." She returned home four hours later after the one-hour news conference and three hours of talks with party leaders.

Her release had been widely expected following the most recent efforts by U.N. envoy Razali Ismail to break the 12-year-old political deadlock in Burma. Mr. Razali, a Malaysian, visited Burma last month on his seventh visit to push forward the secret reconciliation talks between Mrs. Suu Kyi and the junta. He helped start the talks in October 2000.

Mr. Razali told the Associated Press in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, that he believes democracy will return to Burma in a "couple of years down the road in terms of an elected government."

By freeing Mrs. Suu Kyi, "the military leaders have clearly demonstrated their commitment toward bringing democracy. I completely believe that," he said.

Burma has been under military rule since 1962. The current group of generals came to power in 1988 after crushing a pro-democracy movement during which Mrs. Suu Kyi came into prominence. The junta called general elections in 1990 but refused to hand over power, even though Mrs. Suu Kyi's party won more than 80 percent of parliamentary seats.

"As secretary-general of the party, I must do everything I can to make sure that democracy comes to Burma," said Mrs. Suu Kyi, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.

Mrs. Suu Kyi was under house arrest from 1989 to 1995. She was forced into house detention again in September 2000 after two high-profile attempts to leave Rangoon in defiance of government restrictions.

She said her release this time is unconditional.


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