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Suu Kyi wastes no time returning to pro-democracy work after release

Myanmar's recently released pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has called for unity in her splintered party as she sets about rebuilding the country's opposition and working towards a free and democratic future.

Aung San Suu Kyi speaking to supporters on Saturday

Suu Kyi called on her opposition NLD party to unite

Aung San Suu Kyi wasted no time getting back to work after her release from house arrest on Nov. 13. Myanmar's newly freed pro-democracy icon, who had been incarcerated by the country’s regime for 15 of the past 21 years, gave her first speech in seven years just one day after being released, calling on a crowd of supporters in Yangon to unite.

Myanmar's opposition is in disarray, a situation highlighted by last week’s controversial election that consolidated the country’s junta's decades-long grip on power.

The National League for Democracy (NLD), Suu Kyi's party, refused to take part in the election and was consequently outlawed by the regime. This move apparently deepened the rifts within the party as some members ignored the boycott to stand in the vote that democracy activists and Western leaders labelled as a sham.

Suu Kyi's freedom is seen by international observers as an effort by the regime to dampen condemnation of the elections.

The last elections were in 1990, when the military refused to relinquish power despite the NLD winning 392 of 485 parliamentary seats.

"I want to work with all democratic forces," she told her supporters on Sunday, saying she wanted to "hear the voice of the people" before deciding her course of action.

She did reveal that she would be meeting with foreign diplomats in the near future and that Western sanctions imposed on Myanmar in relation to the junta's repression and her own treatment would be on the agenda.

In long-awaited remarks, Suu Kyi said that the "basis of democratic freedom is freedom of speech."

"Democracy is when the people keep a government in check," Suu Kyi told the crowd at the NLD's headquarters.

The crowd, many of them waving "We Love Suu" placards, cheered the Nobel Peace laureate and called her "mother" or "sister."

No security personnel were visible on the streets, but soldiers were seen in a building opposite NLD headquarters.

"I don’t have any antagonism toward the people who kept me under house arrest … the security officials treated me well," she added. "I want to ask [the junta] to treat the people well also."

"Please do not give up hope, there is no reason to lose heart," she said.

Global focus shifts to Myanmar

Aung San Suu Kyi's supporters

A crowd of supporters gathered outside Suu Kyi's home

The international community has used Suu Kyi’s release as an opportunity to urge the country's ruling military dictatorship to hold free elections and to warn against any new infringement of Suu Kyi's liberties.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle expressed their hopes that Suu Kyi would be able to work for democracy.

"She has a central role in the necessary path to national reconciliation and democracy," Westerwelle said.

Barriers outside Suu Kyi's home on Friday

Barriers were removed from outside Suu Kyi's home on Saturday

The EU's special envoy for Myanmar, Piero Fassino, called for "a democratic transition" to take place in Myanmar.

"We hope that this act ... is followed by other essential ones: freedom for all political prisoners, an end to all hostility towards ethnic minorities and the launch of a process for national reconciliation,” Fassino said from his website.

"It's now time for Myanmar to launch a real democratic transition based on dialogue and the involvement of all parts of society."

French president Nicolas Sarkozy said that Paris would pay close attention to the way Suu Kyi was treated in the future.

"Any obstacle to her freedom of movement or expression would constitute a new and unacceptable denial of her rights," Sarkozy said.

US President Barack Obama called Suu Kyi "a hero of mine."

Calls to free other political prisoners

While welcoming the news, several world leaders, including UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, also called on Myanmar to release some 2,100 other political prisoners being held by the government.

Meanwhile, human rights groups reacted cautiously to the release. Amnesty International said Suu Kyi's release "marks the end of an unfair sentence that was illegally extended, and is by no means a concession on the part of the authorities."

New York-based group Human Rights Watch called the junta's move a "cynical ploy" to deflect criticism of its recent election.

Author: Darren Mara, Richard Connor (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)

Editor: Kyle James

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