In her first speech to her supporters in seven years, freed Myanmar democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi urged them Sunday not to lose hope and called for the country's repressive military regime to allow freedom of speech.
"There is no reason to lose heart," she told a crowd of thousands gathered outside the Rangoon headquarters of her National League for Democracy less than 24 hours after she was released from house arrest on Saturday.
"The basis of democratic freedom is freedom of speech," she said, adding that she also believes in human rights and the rule of law. "Democracy is when people keep a government in check."
She told the crowd - which chanted "We love Suu!" as they waited for her address to begin - that they could achieve what they wanted, but they would have to do it "in the right way."
Wearing a blue traditional dress, her dark hair tied back with a yellow flower, the 65-year-old also told her followers that she wanted to hear from them about what had changed in the country better known as Burma during the time she was under house arrest.
Ms. Suu Kyi, the winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, also struck a conciliatory note, saying that she bore "no antagonism" towards those who had kept her in detention. She has been under house arrest since 2003, and for 15 of the 20 years since she and the NLD won a sweeping victory in a 1990 election that the junta never honoured.
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Ms. Suu Kyi has spent most of the past two decades confined in her family's dilapidated mansion on the shore of Lake Inya. She had no telephone or Internet access, and wasy permitted to see only junta-approved visitors.
Her release and her speech come one week after the ruling junta held elections that have been widely condemned as a transparent effort to prolong military rule. A party affiliated with the junta has claimed to have won nearly 80 per cent of the seats in the new parliament.
Myanmar has been under direct military rule since a coup in 1962. Despite Ms. Suu Kyi's release, human rights groups say more than 2,200 political prisoners remain behind bars in the country.
In her first public appearance Saturday evening outside the house where she had been confined, Ms. Suu Kyi indicated she would continue with her political activity but did not specify whether she would challenge the military with mass rallies and other activities that led to her earlier detentions.
"We have a lot of things to do," said the charismatic and relentlessly outspoken woman who has come to symbolize the struggle for democracy in the isolated and secretive nation.
"If we work in unity, we will achieve our goal," Ms. Suu Kyi told some 5,000 cheering supporters who streamed to her residence Saturday when it was clear that she had been freed. Many chanted her name. Some wept.
"I haven't seen you for a long time," she said to laughter, smiling deeply as she held the metal spikes that top the gate. When a supporter handed up a bouquet, she pulled out a flower and wove it into her hair.
Hundreds of supporters had already gathered outside her residence when a convoy of three official cars arrived to read her the release order. When armed riot police took down barricades outside her residence, the crowd surged forward to the gate of her property and began chanting: "Come out, come out Aung San Suu Kyi!"
As news spread that the woman known as The Lady was free, the crowd outside her residence quickly grew into the thousands.
Wearing a lilac dress as she was released, the diminutive Ms. Suu Kyi walked out to meet her supporters, smiling and shaking hands.
Trucks filled with riot police were parked around the corner but government forces made no move to break up the spontaneous celebration.
On Sunday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper welcomed the release of Ms. Suu Kyi.
"I'm very pleased that Aung San Suu Kyi, an honourary Canadian citizen, has finally been released from house arrest in Burma," he said.
"She is an unwavering champion of peace, democracy and respect for human rights in Burma despite being held in detention for 15 of the past 21 years. Our government will continue to promote values of human rights, democracy and justice and we call on the Burmese authority to restore a civilian government," he told reporters attending the annual Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting.
"Neither her trial nor appeal process were conducted in line with international standards. She was not granted due process and should never have been detained," he added in a statement issued from Yokohama, Japan.
Mr. Harper said that the sanctions imposed against the regime in 2007 will remain in place despite the release.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said Ms. Suu Kyi's release was "long overdue," while French President Nicholas Sarkozy warned Myanmar's ruling junta against placing new restrictions on her.
"Aung San Suu Kyi is an inspiration for all of us who believe in freedom of speech, democracy and human rights," Mr. Cameron said in a statement. "Her detention was a travesty, designed only to silence the voice of the Burmese people. Freedom is Aung San Suu Kyi's right. The Burmese regime must now uphold it."
U.S. President Barack Obama said that "while the Burmese regime has gone to extraordinary lengths to isolate and silence Aung San Suu Kyi, she has continued her brave fight for democracy, peace, and change in Burma.
"She is a hero of mine and a source of inspiration for all who work to advance basic human rights in Burma and around the world."
Ms. Suu Kyi has already said she will seek to investigate the Nov. 7 vote, the first election held in the country since her National League for Democracy won a landslide in 1990, claiming 80 per cent of the seats in a result never honoured by the military.
Ms. Suu Kyi was barred from running in last week's election because of her "criminal record." The NLD boycotted the vote, arguing that a free and fair election could not be held under the rules set by the junta, and was later forced to officially disband.
"She is the only one who can change the nation," said Naw San, head of the Students and Youth Congress of Burma.
With a report from The Canadian Press