News / Asia

Burma Democracy Leader Cites Progress, Challenges

Burma pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi leaves the National League for Democracy head office after a news conference to mark the first anniversary of her release from house arrest, in Rangoon, November 14, 2011.
Burma pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi leaves the National League for Democracy head office after a news conference to mark the first anniversary of her release from house arrest, in Rangoon, November 14, 2011.
Daniel Schearf

Burma’s democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has cited positive steps toward democracy by the military-backed government. In a speech marking her one-year release from house arrest, the Nobel Peace Prize winner praised dialogue and called for establishment of the rule of law.

Suu Kyi told supporters and journalists in Rangoon she looks back on the past year of her freedom as eventful, energizing, and to a certain extent, encouraging.

She said her National League for Democracy had been calling for peaceful negotiations with the military-backed government for more than two decades and cited recent direct dialogue as progress.

The NLD leader said the government’s release of 200 political prisoners in October was welcomed, but those remaining behind bars should also be set free.

Reports indicated Burma might release more political prisoners Monday, but as of late afternoon Suu Kyi noted there was no indication any had been freed.

“There are rumors, of course, that important political prisoners are going to be released today," she said. "But, so far these remain only rumors. We do not have any specific information on who has been released if anybody has been released at all.”

Burma’s Human Rights Commission issued a letter Sunday in state-controlled media saying only 300 political prisoners remain, and urged their release.

Suu Kyi says they can confirm at least 525 are still behind bars, while rights groups say there are about 1,700.

The government refuses to acknowledge there are any political prisoners, labeling them as criminals with political affiliations.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner said Burma’s most important challenge for the future is establishing the rule of law and protection of human rights.

“If there is no rule of law we cannot be sure that there will be no political prisoners in the future. Human rights have to be protected by rule of law. And, in the same way, investment and economic opportunities need to be protected by rule of law. Without such protection we can never be sure that progress will be sustainable,” said Suu Kyi.

Suu Kyi said the National League for Democracy would soon decide whether to register as a political party and contest upcoming elections.  Last week, after negotiating with the party, the government amended the election and registration laws to allow its participation.

If the party runs candidates it would lend credibility to the government of President Thein Sein, which has been trying to win support for Burma to host the 2014 ASEAN summit. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations is expected to officially decide on Burma’s bid at meetings this week in Bali, Indonesia.

When asked whether she supported the bid, Suu Kyi answered indirectly.

“I have always said that as far as I am concerned, what is more important than the chairmanship of ASEAN is that the lives of the people of our country should improve, visibly,” she said.

Suu Kyi was held under house arrest for most of the past two decades, but was released following last year’s controversial election. The nationwide polls were widely condemned as a sham designed to cement military rule in the guise of democracy.

The constitution guaranteed the military a quarter of all seats in parliament, and a military-backed party won amid reports of widespread fraud and intimidation.

The National League for Democracy boycotted the polls because of the unfair rules, which also banned Suu Kyi from participating. The National League for Democracy won Burma’s previous election in 1990, but the military refused to give up power.

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