YANGON — After decades of military rule, democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi says there are finally signs of political change in Myanmar, but its long-suffering people are still far from real freedom.
In an exclusive interview, the Nobel Peace Prize winner told AFP that the new government appears genuine in its desire for democratic reform, and said an Arab-style uprising is not the answer to the country's problems.
"There have been changes, but I don't think we're all free or completely free yet. There's still quite a way to go, but I think there have been positive developments," the opposition leader said at her party offices in Yangon.
"I've always said I'm a cautious optimist and I remain a cautious optimist. I do believe that the president would like to bring about positive changes but how far he'll be able to achieve what he wants to achieve is a question that we still need to examine."
After almost half a century of iron-fisted military rule, the junta in March handed power to a new government led by President Thein Sein, one of a clutch of former generals who shed their uniforms to contest last year's election.
The November vote, won by the military's political proxies, was marred by widespread complaints of cheating and the exclusion of Suu Kyi, who was released from seven straight years of house arrest shortly afterwards.
In recent weeks, however, the new administration has shown signs of reaching out to critics including Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party, which won a 1990 election but was never allowed to take office.
In a scene few could have imagined until recently, Suu Kyi last month met Thein Sein at his official residence in the capital Naypyidaw, posing for photos under a picture of her late father, the independence hero Aung San.
Although details of the discussion were not revealed, Suu Kyi said the pair managed to find areas of agreement, adding: "We do have many, many things in common in regards to what we would like to see for the country."
The dissident -- who has won international acclaim for her peaceful resistance in the face of oppression, and has been compared to India's independence hero Mahatma Gandhi for her adherence to non-violence -- said she did not want a popular revolt in Myanmar of the kind seen in Libya.
"What has to be done is a revolution of the spirit. Until attitudes change, until their (the authorities') perceptions of the problems which they have to handle change, there will not be real change," she said.
"Everybody knows that Libya's troubles are going to drag on for a long time. Even if they manage to clear out everybody from the old regime and establish a new government there are going to be so many problems -- the bitterness that will remain, the wounds that will remain unhealed for so long," she said.
The softly spoken and charismatic dissident, now 66, showed no signs that age and long periods of detention at the hands of the junta have dimmed her sharp intellect and indomitable spirit.
"A real revolution takes a long time to be completed. The kind of changes that we want take time to come about. And I would rather that we managed to achieve change through peaceful means, through negotiation."
Pro-democracy uprisings in Myanmar -- also known as Burma -- in 1988 and 2007 were brutally crushed by the junta which showed no sign of softening its hardline stance in response.
Protests otherwise remain rare in the authoritarian state, which has more than 2,000 political prisoners.
Suu Kyi's party boycotted last year's election, the first in two decades, partly because of rules that would have forced it to expel members who are in prison.
As a result it was delisted as a political party by the regime, which in June warned the NLD to halt what it described as illegal activities.
Today, however, despite fears it might be forced to shut down, the party continues to meet and issue statements under the close watch of plainclothes police, who photograph visitors to its ramshackle offices in Yangon.
And in a further sign that the authorities are seeking to engage with the opposition, a top adviser to the president told AFP that the controversial law that prevents prisoners from being political party members could be revised.
"This act was promulgated by the previous government, the military government. This parliament is considering to review that act," Ko Ko Hlaing said.
Suu Kyi said it was too soon to say whether her party would seek to re-register and contest the next election, due in 2015.
But the democracy icon, who has always been modest about her own political ambitions, gave a clear hint that she was ready to lead the country if it is the people's desire.
"I don't think of my political role in terms of becoming president as such, but I believe that things like this have to be decided by the people and not by individual politicians or even by their parties," she said.
Asked whether this meant she was ready to become president if the people wanted it, she replied: "Well if you're not prepared to do this, if necessary, then you shouldn't engage in politics to begin with."
For the first time since her release, Suu Kyi was allowed by the authorities to travel outside of Yangon last month on a political excursion, during which she drew large crowds of supporters -- a reminder of her enduring popularity.
In a further sign of opening up, the new government has invited a steady procession of foreign dignitaries since last year's election for talks with officials and the opposition.
It also allowed a small group of foreign journalists to visit Myanmar and its fledgling parliament last week, including an AFP reporter.
Despite the tentative signs of change, many remain sceptical about the regime's intentions in the absence of more concrete reforms such as the release of political prisoners.
A visiting UN envoy last month called on Myanmar to urgently investigate human rights abuses, saying serious concerns remained despite signs of an improvement under the new government.
Tomas Ojea Quintana voiced concern about the situation in ethnic conflict zones, including attacks against civilians, extrajudicial killings, rape, arbitrary arrest, the recruitment of child soldiers and forced labour.
After an earlier visit to the country last year, the envoy angered Myanmar's ruling generals by suggesting that human rights violations in the country may amount to crimes against humanity and could warrant a UN inquiry.
Suu Kyi said a UN fact-finding probe along the lines of the Truth and Reconciliation Process in South Africa after the abolition of apartheid in the 1990s could help to bring reconciliation to her traumatised nation.
"I think for the sake of future harmony and forgiveness there is a necessity to establish facts," she added. "It's not a tribunal. It has nothing to do with revenge."
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