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Aung San Suu Kyi at Parliament House

Highlights from Prime Minister Tony Abbott's joint press conference with Myanmar opposition leader and Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

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The internationally celebrated leader of Myanmar's democracy movement, Aung San Suu Kyi, has declared she is neither saint nor icon.

Addressing the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney on Thursday morning, the woman feted for enduring nearly two decades of house arrest at the hands of Myanmar's military rulers said she had always seen herself as a politician operating on the basis of "compromise based on principles".

"I always thought that I was a politician, I look upon myself as a politician, not as an icon," she said. " I always object to word icon, because its very static, it stands there, sits there, hangs on the wall, and I happen to work very very hard."

Humble: Aung San Suu Kyi with Frank Lowy and Dr Michael Fullilove at the Lowy Institute.
on Thursday.

Humble: Aung San Suu Kyi with Frank Lowy and Dr Michael Fullilove at the Lowy Institute. on Thursday. Photo: Peter Rae

She disliked even more being thought of as a saint, she added.

"Let me assure you I am no saint of any kind; this I find very troubling, because politicians are politicians, but I do believe there is such a thing as an honest politician and I aspire to that."

Prime Minister Tony Abbott must not have been listening to Ms Suu Kyi's Lowy address, for later this afternoon he welcomed her as an "icon of democracy".

"She's suffered for her country, she's suffered for her beliefs in democratic freedoms," Mr Abbott said.

Ms Suu Kyi responded that it was a great pleasure to be in Australia, "south of the equator for the first time". 

She called for a "healthy balance" between freedom and security in Myanmar.

Ms Suu Kyi, making her first visit to Australia since her release from house arrest in late 2010, has set her sights on becoming the president of Myanmar in elections due in 2015 but is barred by the existing constitution, which entrenches the power of the military.

Even though she was able to take a seat in Parliament in byelections held last year, the country is still a long way from achieving full democracy, she said. But she believed popular support for further reform meant there were "good" prospects for constitutional change.

Addressing an audience that included NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell and shopping centre magnate and Lowy Institute founder Frank Lowy, the 68-year-old Nobel peace prize winner said she wanted Myanmar to use its agricultural base to help meet the growing food needs of India and China.

Myanmar (which she and her followers refer to by its original name of Burma) used to be one of the most prosperous countries in south-east Asia but is now the poorest.

Ms Suu Kyi was also questioned at the Sydney Opera House on Wednesday night about communal violence between the Buddhist majority in the country and Muslim ethnic minorities, particularly the persecuted Rohingya people, who are denied citizenship.

Some have accused her of hypocrisy for failing to speak out more strongly in support of the Rohingya and other minorities.

Local representatives of the Kachin ethnic group - one of the other large minorities inside Myanmar - boycotted her visit, saying she had "whitewashed" military repression of the Kachin.

In a response that is likely to anger some human rights groups, she maintained that, while her National League for Democracy was "dedicated to non-violence", she would not be drawn into meting out condemnation.

"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 the use of labels such as ethnic cleansing to describe what was happening to the Rohingya - many of whom are marginalised in refugee camps - played "into the hands of extremists".

Ms Suu Kyi said that, 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, assassinated when she was two years old.

Aung San Suu Kyi also made a veiled reference on Wednesday night to the federal government’s controversial handling of an asylum-seeker Rohingya family in Brisbane who are fighting their transfer to Nauru, despite their infant being recently hospitalised.

In response to a question about the issue, she asked pointedly, ‘‘do you have the rule of law in Australia?’’ There was sustained applause when she added "you must sort out these problems within the framework of rule of law, always remembering that justice has to be tempered by mercy’’.