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Baird presents Myanmar's Suu Kyi with honorary Canadian citizenship

Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi receives her honorary Canadian citizenship from the hands of Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird at her home in Yangon, Myanmar Thursday, March 8, 2012.

Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press

Aung San Suu Kyi used Thursday's visit of Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird to fire another round in her long fight for freedom – she warned of voter fraud threatening Myanmar's coming landmark elections.

With a steely resolve, the celebrated Nobel laureate warned that bogus voters' lists are threatening her country's tough road to democratic freedom. Mr. Baird, latest in a long line of international visitors, readily agreed.

The revelation added gravity to Mr. Baird's historic visit to Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, where he personally conferred honorary Canadian citizenship on Ms. Suu Kyi.

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Emerging from nearly an hour of talks at her lakeside Yangon residence, where she has served 15 of the last 23 years under arrest, Ms. Suu Kyi disclosed the new threat to her historic campaign.

"We have just discovered there are many, many irregularities on the voters' lists and we have applied to the election commission to do something about this," Ms. Suu Kyi said, standing next to Mr. Baird on the back porch of her scenic sanctuary.

"A lot of dead people seem to be prepared to vote on the first of April. We can't have that, can we? And other things like that."

Mr. Baird's meeting with Ms. Suu Kyi capped a whirlwind day of travel on a visit to one of the world's international pariah states. Though he expressed optimism after meeting Myanmar's reform-minded leaders earlier in the day, the high-flying Canadian minister was clearly grounded after his meeting with one of world's most celebrated champions of freedom.

"I was very concerned to learn about a good number of irregularities, which the party is bringing forward to the government, to the election commission officials. We look forward to seeing the results of that," he said.

Ms. Suu Kyi, 66, is running in a pivotal April 1 byelection that the world views as a crucial test of Myanmar's new civilian leadership, which assumed control of the country last year after decades of iron-fisted military rule.

Earlier Thursday, Mr. Baird met with his counterpart, Wunna Maung Lwin and Myanmar President Thein Sein. The latter meeting took place at a sprawling new presidential palace, an opulent structure in the country's new, austere capital of Naypyitaw.

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Mr. Baird said his government hosts expressed a strong commitment to the coming election process and future reform.

"I'm excited by their enthusiasm and support for a free, fair and transparent process. There's nothing more than I would like than to put out a statement on April 2 congratulating them for such a clean, fair and transparent election," said Mr. Baird.

That's when Ms. Suu Kyi offered a brief flash of demure defiance.

"We're not sure all the results will be in by the second of April. I'm not sure we work that quickly," Ms. Suu Kyi said.

Mr. Baird retorted: "In Canada, we get it done that night."

To which Ms. Suu Kyi replied: "We're not Canada – not yet."

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Ms. Suu Kyi's resilience is legendary.

After her National League for Democracy won a landslide electoral victory in 1990, it was barred by the military from forming a government.

In 1991, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, in absentia, after being placed under house arrest.

A military junta has ruled Myanmar and allowed no dissent, jailing thousands of critics. Ms. Suu Kyi, the most famous, spent most of the last two decades under house arrest.

In 2007, Ms. Suu Kyi became the first woman – and one of only five people – to be granted honorary Canadian citizenship. Mr. Baird's presentation to Ms. Suu Kyi on Thursday coincided with International Women's Day.

Canada has had varying levels of sanctions against Myanmar since 1988. It opened a strategic engagement with the country last summer, but continues to maintain a strict regime of sanctions that were toughened considerably in 2007.

Mr. Baird announced no new easing of those sanctions on this trip, as some other countries have done. But he said he wished he could, if the country's new leaders lived up to their promises of reform on April 1 and later.

Mr. Baird said Canada is helping to support the Burmese people by contributing to international organizations such as the United Nations.

"We would love to be able to play a bigger role in development and trade and commerce," he said.

Mr. Baird and Ms. Suu Kyi seemed to find common ground on this point.

"The government of this country must do its best to help its people first. It's no use saying, why aren't other countries helping, until we can prove our government is doing its best to help our people first," said Ms. Suu Kyi.

In the last year, the pace of change has been surprisingly swift in this resource-rich – but somewhat backward – South Asian nation of 60 million people.

The Myanmar government has released hundreds of political prisoners, and the media has been given more freedoms. Ms. Suu Kyi's image is ubiquitous, and her every word is now reported. She attracts huge crowds at rallies.

But Ms. Suu Kyi stressed the world must continue to subject her country's rulers to close scrutiny with the goal of forcing more freedom.

"We do not yet have complete freedom of information, we do not have complete freedom of communication, but this is what we have to work towards," she said.

Her party won't leap to condemn the current irregularities outright "if they can be remedied in some way."

If they are not, Ms. Suu Kyi promised that her party "would complain loud and long, and we'll make sure that whatever has gone wrong is put right at some time or the other."

Mr. Baird came away genuinely moved by his meeting with this major international figure. He said Ms. Suu Kyi was among top five most impressive people he has met.

"I must admit," the minister said, "I'm rarely in awe."

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