YANGON (Reuters) - Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi called on Sunday for freedom of speech in army-ruled Myanmar, urged thousands of supporters to stand up for their rights, and indicated she may urge the West to end sanctions.
Suu Kyi’s first major speech since being freed from seven years of house arrest a day earlier left little doubt she would resume an influential political role in one of the world’s most isolated and oppressive countries.
“The basis of democratic freedom is freedom of speech,” she said to roaring cheers from thousands of supporters crammed into a cordoned-off street in front of her party’s headquarters. “Even if you are not political, politics will come to you.”
The 65-year-old Nobel peace laureate, who had lost none of her ability to rouse and mesmerize crowds, offered an olive branch to the military junta, saying she had no antagonism for those who kept her detained for 15 of the past 21 years.
Asked by a reporter what message she had for supreme leader Senior General Than Shwe, she replied, “let’s meet and talk.”
The address, given in an informal style in contrast to the usual stuffy military speeches that dominate state media, illustrated the strength of Suu Kyi’s pro-democracy voice at a critical time, just a week after an election widely condemned as rigged to prolong military power behind a facade of democracy.
“You have to stand up for what is right,” Suu Kyi added, urging supporters to be more politically assertive in the former British colony formerly known as Burma, where the army controls nearly every facet of life. “A one woman show is not a democracy.”
Later, speaking with reporters, she declined to comment directly on whether she would urge the West to roll back sanctions that many say hurt ordinary people by allowing the junta to monopolize the country’s resource-rich economy.
“If people really want sanctions to be lifted, I will consider this,” she said. “This is the time Burma needs help. We ask everyone to help us. Western nations. Eastern nations. The whole world...it all starts with dialogue.”
Diplomats expect Suu Kyi to work with the West to end sanctions she once supported but which are now seen by many as contributing to chronic economic problems in the country of 50 million people where a third of the population live in poverty.
She spoke outside the headquarters of her National League for Democracy (NLD) party, standing on a chair, after wading through a sea of supporters, her hair bound with flowers in Burmese style and dressed in blue blouse and traditional wrap-around longyi.
At times, she joked with the crowd. “I know I said I wanted to hear what the public is thinking, but now that there are so many voices and so much noise, I don’t know what is being said anymore,” she said to a roar of laughter and applause.
She at one point held up a poster reading “I love the public too” and expressed amazement at advances in technology made during her detention, especially the spread of mobile phones. “These things should be used to the good advantage,” she said.
Her comment on free speech resonated in a country where every song, book, cartoon and planned piece of art requires approval by censors rooting out political messages and criticisms of Myanmar’s authoritarian system.
State media said she was given a “pardon” after “she was found to be displaying good conduct” ahead of the expiry of her arrest term on Saturday. It quoted a police chief as telling her the junta was “ready to give her whatever help she needs.”
She is expected to rebuild her party, which scored a landslide election victory in 1990 which the junta ignored, but other pro-democracy parties looked forward to her leadership and she told the crowd she would work with other democratic forces.
“She belongs to the entire nation,” said Khin Maung Swe, leader of the National Democratic Force, a party led by renegade members of Suu Kyi’s party. “We consider her a national leader and she does not belong to any single group or party.”
The NLD, Myanmar’s strongest democratic force, was dissolved by the military in September for failing to register for an election it dismissed as unfair and unjust. The party has since been declared an “unlawful association” and will play no official role in Myanmar’s new political system.
Across the commercial capital Yangon, residents celebrated freedom for “The Lady,” as she is affectionately known.
“All we are worried about now is whether she will be able to get a chance to work for the peace and prosperity of the country,” said Ba Ohn, 43, a food stall owner. “Things could not be worse for us.”
Electrician Ko Aye Cho, 33, expressed relief. “I consider her as my own mother. I hope she will bring our country toward a brighter future peacefully.”
Although Myanmar is rich in natural gas, timber and minerals, it ranks among the world’s most corrupt countries. Ethnic militias oversee the world’s second-largest opium crop, its economy is monopolized by the military elite, and about a third of the population lives below the poverty line.
Chronic economic mismanagement during 48 years of direct military rule has ruined much of the infrastructure of a country that was one of Southest Asia’s wealthiest, the world’s top rice exporter and a major energy producer.
Suu Kyi’s popularity is still a threat to the military although her release may give the junta a hint of legitimacy after last week’s election, the first in 20 years, was ridiculed as a sham to prolong military rule behind a facade of democracy.
World leaders -- from U.S. President Barack Obama who hailed her as a personal hero to those in Europe and Asia -- welcomed her release but many governments urged the junta to free all Myanmar’s estimated 2,100 political prisoners.
Writing by Jason Szep. Additional reporting by Martin Petty in Bangkok. Editing by Daniel Magnowski