The Cambodian government has hailed the release of Myanmar democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi after years of house arrest, describing it as an important step on the road towards democracy for the troubled country.
“The government of Cambodia welcomes the release of Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar,” said Koy Kuong, spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Suu Kyi’s landmark release was a sign the military government is implementing its seven-step “roadmap to democracy”, he said, the fifth of which came into force with controversial elections on November 7.
“The government of Myanmar have implemented their roadmap. They have now taken [the fifth] step towards democracy and the development of the country,” Koy Kuong said.
The 65-year-old dissident and Nobel laureate walked free Saturday after seven years of house arrest in Yangon, calling on a sea of jubilant supporters to unite in the face of repression by the country’s military rulers.
Yesterday, she addressed thousands more at the headquarters of her party, the National League for Democracy, reaffirming her commitment to human rights and pledging to “work with all democratic forces” in the country.
“Please keep your energy for us. If we work together we will reach our goal,” she said.
Other local reactions have been mixed, with some observers hailing Suu Kyi’s release as a step forward for human rights in the region and others warning against giving the regime too much credit for what has been widely criticised as a public-relations ploy.
“We applaud the release of Suu Kyi and think that it not only reflects well on Myanmar, but reflects well on all ASEAN countries,” said Yong Kim Eng, president of the People’s Center for Development and Peace.
Koul Panha, executive director of local election monitor Comfrel, said Suu Kyi’s liberation could set a precedent for the negotiated return of Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy, currently living in self-exile abroad.
Sam Rainsy has been sentenced to a total of 12 years’ prison on a series of charges stemming from his campaign to expose alleged Vietnamese border encroachments.
“More problems will probably still happen with Suu Kyi, but her release shows that the ruling political party in Myanmar has expressed its political will to have a fair competition with the opposition leader,” he said.
“I hope that Cambodian politicians will learn from Myanmar and pave the way for the opposition leader Sam Rainsy to return.”
But Pung Chhiv Kek, president of local rights group Licadho, warned against Myanmar – “probably the worst” country in the region in terms of democracy and political freedoms – being seen as an example to the rest of ASEAN.
“It is deeply disturbing that questions may arise on the possible example set by this country for other ASEAN nations, including Cambodia,” she said yesterday, pointing to the fact that 2,200-odd political prisoners still remain behind bars in Myanmar.
“I strongly hope that what happened in Myanmar does not and will not happen in Cambodia.”
Speaking by phone yesterday from Paris, Sam Rainsy welcomed the release of Suu Kyi, but downplayed the comparison between his situation and that of the persecuted NLD leader.
“I admire Aung San Suu Kyi – I’m very happy to see her being released. I’m sure this is a step to push for more freedom towards real democracy in Burma,” he said, using the country’s former name.
The Sam Rainsy Party president agreed with local observers that the release could also set an example for Cambodia in respecting the rights of political opposition figures.
“There is a trend in the world and in Southeast Asia towards more democracy and Cambodia is too small and weak a country to go against this trend,” he said.
Koy Kuong also rejected a comparison between the two leaders, saying Suu Kyi was released after serving her sentence, while Sam Rainsy was yet to serve his own prison term.
“Everything is according to the law,” he said.
A long time coming
Meanwhile, members of the Myanmar community in Phnom Penh rejoiced at the developments inside their country, amid uncertainty as to the junta’s motivation for releasing Suu Kyi.
Local resident Soe Thi Ha, 25, said he was “very happy” that she had been set free after spending 15 of the last 21 years under house arrest.
“She is the only one who can unite the different types of people [in Myanmar]. We have lost literally one generation and the next generation – my generation – needs very good leadership in our journey towards real democracy,” he said.
“I can see signs of an exciting change in mood now that she’s been released.”
But Soe Thi Ha said he feared for Suu Kyi’s safety, recalling the so-called Depayin Massacre, in which junta-sponsored thugs attacked the leader’s convoy in May 2003, killing around 70 NLD supporters.
Suu Kyi’s current term of house arrest began in May last year, following a strange incident in which an American man swam to her lakeside residence in Yangon.
In August, a court at the city’s notorious Insein Prison found Suu Kyi guilty of breaching the terms of her house arrest and sentenced her to three years’ jail and hard labour, a punishment that junta supremo Than Shwe commuted to 18 months’ house arrest.
Cambodian government officials said at the time that Than Shwe’s reduction of the sentence was a sign the military government was “on the way to democratisation”.
Cambodia joined a long list of Western and Asian countries that welcomed Suu Kyi’s release yesterday.
International rights groups, however, have been sceptical of the release, describing it as a means of deflecting attention from last week’s election, widely criticised as a sham to entrench military rule under a veneer of civilian government.
Human Rights Watch described the release as a “cynical ploy by the military government to distract the international community from its illegitimate election”, and called for the country’s remaining political prisoners to be freed. ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY AFP