Amid a sea of brightly-coloured silks, tunics, academic gowns, and a smattering of headscarves, Myanmarese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi told a packed Sydney Opera House audience on Wednesday night of her ambition to become the country’s president in 2015.
But she also spoke of the many constitutional road-blocks still barring the way to full democracy in Myanmar (Burma).
She was lauded as an “emblem of courage” by the heads of Sydney University and the University of Technology, Sydney, who bestowed honorary degrees on her.
But she said it was a mistake to think that her country had successfully completed the path to reform.
Myanmar’s military still had a stranglehold over the parliament and the commander-in-chief of the army appointed at least a quarter of the MPs, making it almost impossible to change the constitution under current rules, which also bar her path to the presidency.
She said her National League for Democracy wanted a rewritten “genuine democratic constitution that will help us to uphold democracy, human rights and national reconciliation”.
Earlier she had been warmly greeted by many of the 4000 Burmese living in New South Wales, with local community leader Dr Myint Cho saying: “There is a lot of excitement about her coming here for the first time.”
But local representatives of the Kachin ethnic group – one of the large minorities inside Myanmar – boycotted her visit claiming she had “whitewashed” military repression of the Kachin.
She’s also been criticised for failing to take a stronger stand against the persecution of the stateless Rohingya Muslims, who do not have citizenship and have been the victims of what Human Rights Watch calls “ethnic cleansing” inside the majority Buddhist nation.
Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel peace prize winner, responded vigorously to several probing questions on the plight of the Rohingya, saying her party was “totally dedicated to non-violence”.
But she rejected those who wanted her to mete out “condemnation” for the communal violence.
“They say why am I not condemning this group or why am I not condemning that group? … And why am I not condemning the military? I am not condemning because I have not found that condemnation brings good results. What I want to do is achieve national reconciliation.”
She said using labels like ethnic cleansing played “into the hands of extremists” on both sides.
Asked if she had ever regretted her decision to leave her husband and children in Britain and suffer nearly 20 years of house arrest in Myanmar, the 68-year-old said she had not.
“I find it embarrassing when people talk about the sacrifices that I have made … those were not sacrifices but choices.”
Aung San Suu Kyi said despite her long years of home detention, it was “difficult for me not to love the army” because it had been founded by her father, independence leader General Aung San, who was assassinated when she was two years old.
“The conviction that I was my father’s best-loved child was a great source of strength to me” she said.
In 1990 her National League for Democracy overwhelmingly won elections but the result was ignored by the military regime, resulting in her house arrest for most of the next two decades.
She was released in November 2010 and won a parliamentary seat in by-elections held in 2012, the first time her party had been able to contest a ballot since the 1990 coup.
Most Western countries, including Australia, have suspended economic sanctions against the Myanmar regime as it continues to free political prisoners and embarks on cautious reform.
However Dr Myint Cho said Myanmarese Australians wanted the Abbott government to “use all its diplomatic and economic clout to ensure that there is a more inclusive dialogue for national reconciliation and lasting peace” in Myanmar.
On Thursday Aung San Suu Kyi addresses the Lowy Institute in Sydney and meets Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop and Prime Minister Tony Abbott in Canberra before flying to Melbourne to open an international HIV/AIDS conference for World AIDS day on Sunday.
Myanmar has one of the highest transmission rates of the disease in Asia.