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Burmese Pro-Democracy Leader Aung San Suu Kyi Freed After 15 of Past 21 Years in Detention

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In Burma, pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is free. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate has spent 15 of the past 21 years in detention. She was released on Saturday by the Burmese military junta after her latest period of house arrest expired. Hundreds of people rushed to her home after the authorities removed barbed-wire barricades in front of her compound. We speak with Burmese dissident and former political prisoner Aung Din and Jennifer Quigley of the U.S. Campaign for Burma. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In Burma, pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is free. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate has spent 15 of the last 21 years in detention. She was released Saturday by the Burmese military junta after her latest period of house arrest expired. Hundreds of people rushed to her home after the authorities removed barbed-wire barricades in front of her compound.

On Sunday, Aung San Suu Kyi spoke before thousands of supporters at her party’s headquarters, the National League for Democracy in Rangoon. She called for freedom of speech, urged her supporters to stand up for their rights, and suggested she may urge an end to the sanctions. She also said she would take any opportunity to meet with members of the ruling military junta. Speaking to reporters after her speech, Aung San Suu Kyi urged the Burmese people to unite, saying, “Either we are all free together or we are all not free together.” Listen carefully.

AUNG SAN SUU KYI: Either we’re all free together or we are all not free together. How soon are we able to obtain democracy depends very much on how much support the people will give us. I hope that what I do for this country is not based simply on moral authority. I like to think that I’m part of a movement, part of an effective movement. I’m not going to be able to do it alone; you’ve got to do it with me. One person alone can’t do anything as important…

AMY GOODMAN: Aung San Suu Kyi’s release came six days after Burma held its first election in 20 years. The ruling military junta claimed victory, but the poll has been criticized by the international community as being rigged and neither free nor fair.

For more, we go to Washington, D.C. We’re joined by Aung Din, a Burmese dissident and former political prisoner, co-founder and executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma. He joins us along with Jennifer Quigley, the advocacy director at the U.S. Campaign for Burma.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Aung Din, talk about the significance of Aung San Suu Kyi’s release and hearing her speak to the public.

AUNG DIN: Well, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is respected and admired by the people of Burma. They believe that she is the one and only national leader who can bring freedom, justice and democracy in their country. That is why her release is actually a very rare moment for the people of Burma to enjoy and celebrate. I also believe that this is a moment of hope and quite very — quite significant.

At the same time, I listened to her speeches yesterday when she talked to the people and when she talked to the media. She is very aware of networking. That’s why she even said that using the modern-day technology, she would like to lead an organizing network among the people who would like to obtain the democracy and human rights not only inside the country, but also around the world. So, she is very well informed. She is very well in touch with the people of Burma. Then, she will move forward to organize and unite all the people from the country, as well as all the people around the world, and to bring democracy and human rights.

AMY GOODMAN: Jennifer Quigley, the significance of Aung San Suu Kyi being released right after the elections that they weren’t able to participate in?

JENNIFER QUIGLEY: Well, there’s two points of significance. One is that they specifically had her arrest — her sentence be for 18 months, which would give them one week past their elections, and so, essentially, trying to muzzle her voice during the election period. And so, they felt now was sort of a time they could. The second was, the international community and the people of Burma have all called for her release, and so if they were going to ease that pressure that the international community has placed on them, this was the key move that they needed to make. And so, it was sort of significant in two ways.

AUNG DIN: Yeah, Amy, can I add one thing —


AUNG DIN: — about the significance? Yeah, this is very important to note that international pressure has worked. This is something, a response to the international community by the region, because there has been another heavy pressure from the international community, including United States, United Kingdom, United Nations, and every part of the world for the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Now they respond to this international pressure. That is why we believe that the international pressure should continue for the release of the remaining 2,200 political prisoners.

AMY GOODMAN: Aung Din, you, yourself, are a former political prisoner. When were you imprisoned in Burma?

AUNG DIN: Yes. I was in prison over four years and three months, between April 1989 to July 1993.

AMY GOODMAN: And what does it mean for the country that Aung San Suu Kyi has been imprisoned for some 15 years? What kind of toll has it taken on her? And where does the National League for Democracy stand today?

AUNG DIN: Well, the difference between us and her is she was detained under house arrest, and we were —- we other political prisoners were detained inside a jail, inside the prisons. So the situation were very much different. But what is alike is that we all are isolated from the family, we all are isolated from the people we love, we all are living under the heavy restriction. So, living under the heavy restriction, being isolated from the people of Burma and the people she love for about 15 years in over the last 21 years, it was kind of a great hell for living -—- great living hell for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, I believe. I believe that she must have very strong spirit and very strong energy to confront these darkest years.

And we are, you know, under the — we are in the ongoing struggle for the freedom, justice and democracy in the country. But we need our leader. Now, the release of her will be the greatest hope for us to continue our movement for the national reconciliation and democratization. Now we got our leader back, so National League for Democracy will be more stronger and more better under the leader — direct leadership of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. I believe that we are going to have the very encouraging day towards democratization under her leadership.

AMY GOODMAN: Aung Din, can you give us a quick lesson on the history of the regime, when it came to power?

AUNG DIN: Well, actually, Burma has been under the military dictatorship since 1962. In 1988, we students started to organize a nationwide popular uprising against a one-party dictatorship led by then-dictator General Ne Win. So, on August in 1988, we were already organizing a nationwide popular uprising calling for democracy, human rights and an end of single-party rule. We were able to organize millions of people into the streets to demand peaceful — a political reform peacefully.

During that period, we requested our national leaders to lead the movement, because students started the movement, but we are just student leaders. We need national leaders to continue to lead the nationwide uprising. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi agreed to our offer, our request, and she came to the upfront of the movement. Then she became the leader of the movement, and later she founded the National League for Democracy, and she was one of the founders and leaders of the National League for Democracy.

And then our nonviolent demonstrations was brutally cracked down by the military junta. And thousands of — tens of thousands of peaceful demonstrators were killed on the spot. Then the current military junta took over power on September 18, 1988. But the people’s resistance was very strong, and that is why the military junta agreed to hold a multi-body election in 1990. By that, they expected that their party, National Unity Party, will win the election, because — that is why — to make sure the victory of the National Unity Party, they already put Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and other leaders of National League for Democracy under house arrest and in the prisons. And they put a lot of restrictions over the election period. But to their surprise, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, National League for Democracy, won in a landslide victory, securing 82 percent of the parliamentary seats then. Only then, military junta refused to accept the election result, and actually they even arrested many members of Parliament elected. Then they continued to hold power and using the other — many other ways, such as national conventions, so and so, until this day.

AMY GOODMAN: Jennifer Quigley —

AUNG DIN: Now they hold the election.

AMY GOODMAN: Finish up, Aung Din, on the history.

AUNG DIN: Yeah, now they held the election with the — elections with the constitution which they have adopted, that this constitution was designed to enshrine the permanent military rule in the country. And they held the election to secure the victory of their party, Union Solidarity and Development Party. And that’s why they put — they even made — they even forced the National League for Democracy party to be away from the election by putting a lot of heavy restrictions against — for the participation. So, National League for Democracy party backed out of the election. They also called for the people of Burma to boycott the election. Anyhow, the regime held the election, and now they are claiming that their party won over 85 percent of the parliamentary seats. Actually, the election was rigged very much.

AMY GOODMAN: And Jennifer Quigley, the significance of the possibility of Aung San Suu Kyi calling for the softening of sanctions? She has called for the sanctioning of Burma for years.

JENNIFER QUIGLEY: Well, I think the most significant thing was really that she’s been under arrest for seven-and-a-half years, and so she feels as if she needs to take the time to talk to the people of Burma and talk to the international community to find out what things are like right now and to see what options are available and what is going to be the most useful for helping to bring about democracy and dialogue. She’s always tied sanctions to it being an international pressure mechanism to bring about a national reconciliation dialogue. And so, I think she was very smart with her comments in saying that she needs to reassess and talk with the people of Burma to decide whether or not that is still the correct pressure point to bring about the dialogue process. And so, I think we sort of have to wait and see whether or not we have to change the type of international pressure we use and whether we continue to use sanctions or not. And so I think it’ll be a hold off and wait and see what she and the people of Burma decide to ask of us.

AMY GOODMAN: Jennifer Quigley, thank you for being with us, Aung Din, a former political prisoner and Burmese dissident. They’re both with the U.S. Campaign for Burma. Again, Aung San Suu Kyi free after 15 of the last 21 years in detention.

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