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Democracy leader Suu Kyi urges 'real genuine talks' in Burma

Just two days after her release from house arrest, democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi visited the headquarters of the officially defunct National League for Democracy, where she met with party members.

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By Steve Finch and John Pomfret
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 15, 2010; 9:43 PM

RANGOON, BURMA - Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi said Monday that she would seek dialogue with the military leaders who imprisoned her for 15 of the past 20 years, suggesting in one of her first interviews since her release that her strategy for bringing change to Burma will be one of compromise.

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Suu Kyi has taken a hard line in previous aborted efforts to bring democracy to this Southeast Asian nation, but her comments indicate a new willingness to engage with a ruling clique that she has spent much of her professional life fighting against.

In particular, Suu Kyi said she would consider recognizing a parliament that was elected this month in a vote widely derided as a fraud and might support a softening of international sanctions intended to weaken the government.

"We have got to be able to talk to each other," Suu Kyi told The Washington Post in a spare office at the headquarters of her National League for Democracy. "I think, firstly, we have to start talking affably - real genuine talks, not just have some more tea or this or that."

Although Suu Kyi was released by the government, and security forces were not a heavy presence when she gave a political speech to thousands of supporters Sunday, the junta, which has clung to power for 48 years, retains the ability to exert tight control over her. In the past, whenever the military has felt threatened by Suu Kyi's burgeoning grass-roots support, it has responded by returning her to detention.

Suu Kyi's release presents a quandary for the Obama administration, which has attempted unsuccessfully to improve ties with the junta over the past two years. Human rights advocates called Monday on the administration to move forcefully to head off the possibility that Burma's leaders might rearrest Suu Kyi, as they did in 2003 after her last release. Others cautioned that the U.S. influence on the junta is limited and called for the United States to appeal to Burma's backers in China, India, Southeast Asia and Japan to restrain the government.

"We're at a really dangerous moment for the country and Aung San Suu Kyi in particular," said Tom Malinowski, head of the Washington office of Human Rights Watch. Suu Kyi is attracting big crowds, and Malinowski said he is worried that as she carries out her vow to reengage politically, she will be on a collision course with the government of Senior Gen. Than Shwe.

"At that point, all bets will be off," he said. "There could be violence, and she could be re-imprisoned. So a wait-and-see policy in Washington becomes misguided."

The United States has spoken out against the anti-democratic tactics of the government and has endorsed efforts by Suu Kyi and others to expand rights in Burma, also known as Myanmar.

"We are prepared to have a different kind of relationship with Burma, but there are things that Burma will have to do," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Monday. "It'll take more than one action to change our policy."

Sitting alone in her office, Suu Kyi wore a turquoise longyi, a Burmese sarong, and a pale side-buttoned blouse with embroidered flowers. In the British accent she picked up during her undergraduate days at Oxford University, the 65-year-old spoke frankly about her release and her plans.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner said she was not surprised by the extent to which the junta had rigged Burma's Nov. 7 election - the first since 1990, when the junta failed to recognize Suu Kyi's victory - to give itself 80 percent of seats. "It's no use saying that you can choose freely between a rock and a hard place," she said. "We want meaningful choice."

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