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Aung San Suu Kyi Gains Freedom & Challenges Regime

Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi Gains Freedom & Challenges Regime

By Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Freed after seven years under house arrest, Burma's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi said Sunday (November 14) she will investigate "many allegations of vote-rigging" in last week's election, but offered to talk with the ruling military junta and consider the effects of U.S.-led economic sanctions.

After years of monitoring her radio, Mrs. Suu Kyi said she now wants to "listen to human voices" to learn from Burma's masses about their woes and suggestions.

She also marveled at the ubiquitous use of mobile phones, revealing a sense of culture shock after her shuttered existence.

"I am for national reconciliation. I am for dialogue," soft-spoken Mrs. Suu Kyi (pronounced: "Sue Chee") said during a speech to 5,000 cheering people at the headquarters of her recently disbanded National League for Democracy (NLD) party.

Hours later, she told the British Broadcasting Corp (BBC) on Sunday: "I think we have to sort out our differences, across the table, talking to each other, agreeing to disagree, or finding out why we disagree and trying to remove the sources of our disagreement, if we possibly can."

Her previous meeting with Burma's supreme leader, Gen. Than Shwe, was in 2002 and failed to produce any major agreement.

Mrs. Suu Kyi's popular NLD party boycotted Burma's nationwide election on November 7, resulting in a landslide victory by the manipulative military's candidates for a bicameral parliament and 14 regional assemblies.

"From what I have heard, there are many, many questions about the fairness of the election, and there were many allegations of vote-rigging, and so on," the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate told the BBC.

"The committee that the NLD formed on this matter will be looking into all these allegations, and they will be bringing out their report," Mrs. Suu Kyi told the BBC, indicating she will challenge the military's control over the polls, which were condemned as a sham by several world leaders, including President Obama.

Mrs. Suu Kyi said she wanted to discuss the effects of U.S.-led international economic sanctions with nations supporting and opposing those policies, and determine if they should be tightened, eased, or ended.

Several pro-democracy Burmese organizations demand that sanctions be toughened on banking, insurance and other financial sectors, because the regime conducts international business through foreign banks and insurance companies not under the current sanction program.

U.S.-led sanctions and the military's corrupt mismanagement have impoverished the previously wealthy country, hitting the struggling civilian population hardest.

Burma enjoys investments and other support from neighboring China, Thailand and India, which appear to benefit by not having to compete with American and European companies restricted by the sanctions.

Burma also receives weapons and diplomatic support from China, which uses its seat on the U.N.'s Security Council to block international efforts to pressure the regime.

In return, China taps Burma's natural gas and other vast natural resources, and is gaining an overland southern route to Burma's Bay of Bengal coast, which opens to the Indian Ocean.

Immediate problems facing the slender, 65-year-old widow include an traditionally uncompromising military which has ruled the biggest country in mainland Southeast Asia since a 1962 coup.

If she steps over any line they draw, she can again be arrested.

More than 2,200 political prisoners remain jailed, including labor activists, Buddhist monks, entertainers, students and writers.

"This is an unconditional release. No restrictions are placed on her," her lawyer Nyan Win said, though the military created a draconian constitution in 2008 which curtails most political activity.

With the military in such a strong position, and its success in limiting Mrs. Suu Kyi's options, it is difficult to predict how the two sides can close the gap between them.

Mrs. Suu Kyi was first placed under house arrest in 1989 for challenging the regime, after troops killed 3,000 pro-democracy demonstrators during a failed 1988 uprising.

While confined, her NLD party won a landslide election victory in 1990, but the military ignored those polls.

Her house arrest has been extended, on and off, for 15 of the past 21 years.

Her latest stretch began in 2003 after a government-backed mob attacked her motorcade in northern Burma, killing and injuring some of her supporters.

Her sentence was extended for 18 months after she illegally allowed an American, John Yettaw, to spend two nights at her dilapidated lakeside villa when he broke the law and swam, uninvited, to warn her of possible assassination.

Though many dismissed Mr. Yettaw's warnings as a product of his own imagination, others have speculated that the military regime may want to arrange her death so it can rid itself of a major thorn in their attempt to dominate Burma.

Other political knots facing Mrs. Suu Kyi, and the military, include how to resolve Burma's perennial guerrilla wars, sporadically fought by several ethnic minorities along the country's mountainous eastern and northern borders.

Burma, now also known as Myanmar, achieved independence from colonial Britain in 1948.

Several main tribes -- including the Karen, Karenni, Shan, Chin, Wa and Mon -- believed they would be allowed autonomy or independence from the ethnic Burman majority at that time.

When their demands were later rejected, they began desperate insurgencies in their opium-rich tribal regions, some of which continue to the present day.

During November 7 and 8, Karen Buddhist guerrillas attacked Burmese troops in and around Myawaddy town, killing several people and prompting 15,000 civilians to cross eastern Burma's border, briefly sheltering in Thailand.

Neither Mrs. Suu Kyi nor the military have unveiled a plan acceptable to the ethnic minorities, while the regime demands the rebels agree to a cease-fire or suffer more military assaults.

*************

Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist who has reported news from Asia since 1978. He is co-author of "Hello My Big Big Honey!", a non-fiction book of investigative journalism. His web page is http://www.asia-correspondent.110mb.com

ENDS

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