Suu Kyi urges Myanmar MPs to back minority rights

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Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has called for laws to protect the rights of ethnic minorities

Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Wednesday called for laws to protect the rights of ethnic minorities in her first ever speech to the country's fledgling parliament.

Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Wednesday called for laws to protect the rights of the strife-torn nation's myriad ethnic minorities in her maiden speech to the fledgling parliament.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner won a seat in the legislature in landmark April by-elections, marking a dramatic transformation from a longtime political prisoner to a key figure in the budding reform process.

The veteran activist used her first short address to lawmakers to support a motion by a ruling-party MP on upholding ethnic minority rights.

"To become a truly democratic union with a spirit of the union, equal rights and mutual respect, I urge all members of parliament to discuss the enactment of the laws needed to protect equal rights of ethnicities," she said.

Protecting ethnic rights required more than just maintaining languages and culture, she added, noting that minority groups suffer above-average poverty rates.

"Furthermore, the flames of war are not completely extinguished," she said.

Ongoing fighting in Kachin state in the north has displaced tens of thousands of people and cast a shadow over the government's efforts to reach ceasefire agreements with the country's various armed ethnic minority groups.

Meanwhile recent clashes between Buddhist ethnic Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya have left dozens dead and tens of thousands homeless in Rakhine state in the west.

Myanmar's government considers the Rohingya to be foreigners, while many citizens see them as illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh and view them with hostility.

Suu Kyi has disappointed some rights campaigners by not offering stronger support to Myanmar's estimated 800,000 Rohingya, described by the United Nations as one of the world's most persecuted minorities.

She did not mention the violence in Rakhine in her address.

Experts say the issue is a political minefield for Suu Kyi as she tries to build her credentials as a unity figure who can represent Myanmar's various minority groups as well as pro-democracy activists among the majority Burmans.

Civil war has plagued parts of the country formerly known as Burma since it won independence from Britain in 1948, and many members of ethnic minority groups are suspicious of the Burmans, including Suu Kyi.

The 67-year-old's entry into mainstream politics is one of the most visible signs of change under a new reformist government which took power last year under President Thein Sein, a former general.

Thein Sein has overseen a series of dramatic reforms, including the release of hundreds of political prisoners, currency market liberalisation and ceasefire deals with several armed rebel groups.

An end to the conflicts and alleged rights abuses involving government troops is a key demand of Western nations, which are starting to roll back sanctions imposed over Myanmar's human rights record during military rule.

Delivering a Nobel prize acceptance speech two decades in the making in Oslo last month, Suu Kyi said she and her party "stand ready and willing to play any role in the process of national reconciliation".

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