Menu

EUROPE

Myanmar democracy icon calls her detention illegal

Myanmar's democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi said Thursday that her recent release from seven years of detention did not signal a softening in the military's harsh, decades-long rule of the Southeast Asian nation.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Suu Kyi called her detention illegal and said she was released simply because the decreed period of her house arrest had ended.

"I don't think there were any other reasons," she said in her small, Spartan office, decorated with little except a vase of flowers and a black and white photograph of her late father, Aung San, who helped lead colonial Burma to independence from Britain. "My detention had come to an end, and there were no immediate means of extending it."

The 65-year-old Nobel Peace laureate, set free from her lakeside residence Saturday, has made it clear she plans to pursue her goal of a democratic Myanmar, which is also known as Burma, but has been careful not to verbally challenge the junta or call for its overthrow.

Her most recent detention began in 2003 after she was blamed for an attack by government thugs on her convoy. It was extended in 2009 when she briefly sheltered an American man who swam uninvited to her decaying villa.

"I never should have faced detention," she said.

Since Saturday, though, the generals and their longtime archrival have had no contact.

"I haven't seen any sign of the junta at all since I came out. They haven't made any move to let us know what they feel about the situation," said Suu Kyi, an unflappable and deeply charismatic woman who speaks with an upper-class British accent.

She added, though, that her goals would not change: "I had better go on living until I see a democratic Burma," she said, laughing.

She has called for face-to-face talks with junta leader Gen. Than Shwe to reach national reconciliation.

On Thursday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon telephoned Suu Kyi and the pair had a "warm and cordial conversation," Ban's spokesman Martin Nesirky said. The world body leader expressed his admiration for Suu Kyi's "courage and dignity as a source of inspiration for millions of people around the world," according to Nesirky.

Suu Kyi has been detained for 15 of the past 21 years but has remained the dominant figure of Myanmar's battered pro-democracy movement. More than 2,200 political prisoners remain behind bars.

A week before her release, a military-backed political party swept the first elections in 20 years amid widespread accusations that the balloting was rigged. Final results have yet to be announced, but some military candidates took 90 percent and more of the votes in their constituencies.

Many observers believe her release was timed to shift attention from the elections and the international condemnation of them.

"It's a public relations maneuver to appease domestic opinion as well as the international community, and to deflect attention from the fraudulent Nov. 7 election," Bertil Lintner, a prominent writer on Myanmar, said in an e-mail.

Suu Kyi acknowledged in the interview that her years of political work had been difficult for her family.

"I knew there would be problems," she said of her mid-life decision to go into politics. "If you make the choice you have to be prepared to accept the consequences."

Suu Kyi, who was largely raises overseas, married the British academic Michael Aris and raised their two sons, Kim and Alexander, in England.

But in 1988, at age 43, she returned home to take care of her ailing mother as mass demonstrations were breaking out against military rule. She was quickly thrust into a leadership role, mainly because she was the daughter of Aung San.

The personal costs have been staggering. She was unable to see her husband before he died of cancer in 1999. She has not seen her sons in a decade, and has never met her two grandchildren.

She refuses to leave Myanmar, even during her brief periods of freedom, fearing she would not be allowed to return.

While her family supported her, she said her sons had suffered particularly badly.

"They haven't done very well after the breakup of the family, especially after their father died, because Michael was a very good father," she said. "Once he was no longer there, things were not as easy as they might have been."

Little is known about her sons, who largely avoid the media. Kim lives in England with his family and Alexander resides in the United States.

But she added that she always had their support: "My sons are very good to me," she said. "They've been very kind and understanding all along."