This is a special report from a journalist inside Rangoon, who has been covering Burma’s political developments for VOA despite the threat of deportation. For safety reasons, the journalist’s identity is being withheld. These are the reporter’s notes from the field.
On her first full day of freedom, Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi wasted no time returning to the political platform that kept her confined for 15 of the past 21 years.
“I understand what the people want,” she told thousands of supporters in Rangoon Sunday. The crowd chimed in with her together, “It’s democracy!”
Speaking outside the headquarters of her party, the National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi condemned last week’s elections, the first in 20 years.
“Elections should be held in the correct way, and unfair elections do not bring about democracy,” she said. “Democracy does not mean that everybody agrees, but it does mean that you tolerate other people’s opinions.”
A pro-government party is claiming to have won 80 percent of the seats in the parliamentary elections, which the military regime says is shifting Burma to civilian rule. The opposition and many voters say the election was rigged.
“The people should make their voices heard, nothing can happen without the people’s participation, and we have to try, not just here, but all over the world,” the democracy icon told the crowd.
In the seven years since Aung San Suu Kyi last walked the streets of Burma, the country has changed. Investment from China, Thailand and other Asian nations has brought some disposable income and new technology to the isolated state.
“I see many people are talking on cell phones, which means our country’s telecommunications has improved,” observed the 65-year-old politician. “Use it! Use it to communicate with one another, try to understand each other. People should be frank with the NLD, and approach us with their problems.”
She then held up a sign that read, “I also love the people,” returning the affection that has made her the country’s most beloved figure, even when out of sight. She pointed to one man in the crowd, and he was handed a microphone.
“Now Aung San Suu Kyi has been released, it is time for our release from military dictatorship,” he cried.
Military leaders have ruled Burma since 1962. Although the opposition won an overwhelming victory in the country’s last elections in 1990, the military annulled that vote, keeping a firm grip on power. Few Burmese believe that Aung San Suu Kyi’s release signifies the military’s desire for real change. But they say at least it gives them a platform to begin to demand it.
The Nobel Peace laureate placed little filter on her words. She said the country was controlled by a very small group of people, and that this group of people must in turn be controlled. A spectator said this was impossible because, “they control us with guns.”
Aung San Suu Kyi tried to temper expectations, acknowledging the great amount of work that lies ahead for her and the people in order to build a nation. She stressed the importance of cooperation. Thanking the security personnel who guarded her house during her arrest, she punned that love is not the act of scratching at one another.
After her speech, she took questions from local and foreign journalists at the NLD office. The pro-democracy leader called for open political dialogue and peaceful national reconciliation with all groups, including ethnic minority militias fighting the military in the country’s north.
“The problems with violence on the border areas with ethnic groups will not be solved overnight,” she said. “I am very sad that ours is a country where conflict is solved with arms.”
Aung San Suu Kyi also opened a small window into her life of confinement. She said she was able to remain fairly even keeled during her detention by meditating every day.
Although the opposition leader was isolated from her family, friends and colleagues during most of her detention, authorities did grant her rare meetings with senior party members during the past year. During those consultations, the NLD decided not to participate in the November 7 polls because the election rules banned political prisoners from voting, and required the party to expel its own leader.
Aung San Suu Kyi told reporters Sunday that she stood by that decision.
“I do not regret not participating in an election I did not believe in, because I did not believe in the constitution. I did not believe in writing off the 1990 elections, and I did not believe in abandoning our comrades who are in jail,” she said.
When asked how she would navigate the new political landscape, she said she could not even see it because there were, “too many people standing in front of her.”
A crowd of several thousand joined Aung San Suu Kyi for her first political speech in nearly a decade. Many held signs that said, “I love Aung San Suu Kyi.” One man held a newspaper, crouching beneath its broadsheets for shade. “I’m sweating too much,” he said. “But it’s worth it, I would not miss ‘The Lady’ for anything.” An elderly monk was not as lucky. He passed out from the heat, and lay on the hot pavement.
Representatives of the entire diplomatic corps, a group of about 30 people, also joined the event. They met with Aung San Suu Kyi inside the NLD office before she made her speech.
“All the diplomats expressed pleasure at her release and relayed their respective governments’ messages, including countries from the ASEAN grouping,” reported U.S. Charge d’Affaires Larry Dinger, referring to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. “She said her release was unrestricted, and she was free to travel around the country and internationally but had too much work to do inside the country at the moment.”
Many are concerned that Aung San Suu Kyi could face further detention should she move ahead with her political agenda too quickly, posing a threat to the military government. She dismissed those concerns, saying, “My popularity comes and goes, I do not think they should be threatened.”
As the hot, sweaty crowd disbanded, many were pushed and injured, but the spirit of the group was peaceful, reflecting the spirit of the person they had come to support.
A 48 year-old farmer from the Sagaing region traveled all the way to Rangoon once he heard the news.
“I’m so happy,” he said. “We have been waiting for such a long time.”