YANGON, Myanmar – Democracy heroine Aung San Suu Kyi took her first steps back into Myanmar's political minefield Sunday, vowing to press ahead in her decades-long fight for democracy while also calling for compromise with other political parties and the ruling junta.
Suu Kyi, who was freed from house arrest Saturday amid a divided political landscape and days after widely criticized elections, made clear she faces a precarious position: maneuvering between the expectations of the country's pro-democracy movement and the realities of dealing with a clique of secretive generals who have kept her locked up for much of the past two decades.
"I've always believed in compromise," the Nobel Peace laureate told reporters in the dilapidated offices of her party, the National League for Democracy, with its rough concrete floor and battered wooden furniture. "I am for national reconciliation. I am for dialogue. Whatever authority I have, I will use it to that end ... I hope the people will support me."
This Southeast Asian nation, once known as Burma, has been ruled by the military since 1962, leaving it isolated from much of the international community and battered by poverty. The junta has an abysmal human rights record, holding thousands of political prisoners and waging brutal military campaigns against ethnic minorities.
In recent years, though, it has also become an increasingly important regional trading hub, and its natural gas reserves and hydroelectric possibilities have brought it close to energy-hungry China and India.
Earlier Sunday, Suu Kyi spoke to a rapturous crowd of as many as 10,000 people who jammed the street in front of the office. While the speech was technically illegal — any gathering of more than a handful of people needs government permission in Myanmar — the authorities made no arrests.
Deeply charismatic, the 65-year-old Suu Kyi is by far the country's most popular politician, a popularity the junta clearly fears. Dozens of secret police officers were on hand Sunday to record her comments and photograph those in attendance.
"I believe in human rights and I believe in the rule of law. I will always fight for these things," she told the crowd. "I want to work with all democratic forces and I need the support of the people."
But she also 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.
Later, Suu Kyi 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.
If her comments might appear surprisingly measured for a woman who has become an international symbol of democratic reform, she has long said she was willing to negotiate, even with the junta.
The top-ranking U.S. diplomat in Myanmar, Charge d'Affaires Larry Dinger, was among a group of diplomats who met her Sunday and also met her while she was under house arrest.
"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.
Energized as Suu Kyi's supporters are, she faces a military determined to cling to the power it has wielded for decades, and any collision between the two could well land Suu Kyi right back from where she emerged this weekend — house arrest and isolation.
"It could be a little bit of a cat and mouse game," said Trevor Wilson, former Australian ambassador to Myanmar and now a visiting fellow at the Australian National University in Canberra. "The regime may wait for her to make a tactical error and crack down on her again."
Suu Kyi's most recent term kept her under house arrest for seven years, though she has been jailed or under house arrest for more than 15 of the last 21 years.
In that time, she was unable to see her husband, the British scholar Michael Aris, before he died of cancer, and has never met her grandchildren. She has not seen her two sons for almost 10 years.
But she insisted Sunday her time in detention — in a crumbling lakeside family villa where she had a small staff — was far easier than most prisoners here face. Human rights groups say the government holds more than 2,200 political prisoners.
"Honestly, throughout these years of detention, they have treated me well. But they have not acted according to the rule of law, and that I will always fight against," she told reporters.
She said she "kept myself pretty much on an even keel" during her detention, but added for years she had only the radio for company. "I'd like to listen to human voices," she said.
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. The leading opposition party was a splinter from Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, was officially disbanded for refusing to register for the polls.
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 said her party would help probe allegations of voting fraud.
Myanmar's last elections in 1990 were won overwhelmingly by the 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 the country's most famous modern political hero, Aung San, who led the country to the eve of independence from Britain before his assassination by political rivals in 1947.
She rode out the military's bloody suppression of street demonstrations to help found the NLD. Her defiance gained her fame and honor, most notably the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize.
That defiance and the immense personal costs she has paid — held in detention, cut off from her family — has given Suu Kyi's followers a near-mystical belief in her abilities.
"She has sacrificed her family to stand for truth and justice," said Taw Hla Kyi, an 80-year-old woman standing in the crowd Sunday. "If we all work together with Suu Kyi, the generals will all run away."
Associated Press writer Grant Peck in Bangkok and video journalist Jason Dorn in Washington contributed to this report.