Opposition leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was freed Saturday in Myanmar after years in detention as a huge crowd presented flowers and chanted “Long Live Suu Kyi.”
Soldiers armed with rifles and tear gas launchers pushed aside the barbed-wire barriers blocking her street at 5:15 p.m., leading to a gleeful dash the final 100 yards to her gate. Twenty minutes later, the slight pro-democracy opposition figure known here simply as “the lady” popped her head over her red spiked fence to a roar from jubilant supporters.
“It’s very happy to see the people,” she said, barely audible over the chanting. “It’s been a very long time since I’ve seen you.”
Suu Kyi, who has been in detention for 15 of the last 21 years in a country under brutal military rule, promised to speak at greater length Sunday at the headquarters of her political party.
“I’ll have a loudspeaker then,” she said to laughter. “I won’t say anything more now, since you can’t hear me anyway.”
Her party, the National League for Democracy, won by a landslide in 1990 but the results weren’t honored by the regime. And it was forced to disband recently after deciding to boycott last weekend’s controversial election. Full election results have not been released, but Union Solidarity and Development Party officials, the party backed by the regime, have indicated it has won close to 80% of the seats.
That has sparked allegations by opposition parties in Myanmar, also known as Burma, and by governments and human rights groups abroad of widespread fraud centered on the use of advance ballots. President Obama accused the junta this week of “stealing” the election.
As the darkness settled over 54 University Ave. and her lakeside neighborhood, supporters rejoiced. “I’m so happy she’s free,” said a 24-year old student who identified himself as Bositt, wearing a “We Stand with Aung San Suu Kyi” T-shirt. “She’s our leader, our mother.
“I’ve been waiting since 9 a.m. for this but it’s more than worth it.”
It’s not immediately clear what are the conditions surrounding her release. In the past, she’s been barred from leaving Yangon or forced to gain approval from the army for trips. She had vowed to remain in detention unless given an unconditional release, but if she pushes it too far, she could be rearrested under some pretext by a regime that’s been in power for 48 years.
“I don’t think they’ll try and rearrest her quickly,” said a former political prisoner. “She will be given some leeway, and if she stays within that, it will be OK. But I don’t think they’ll let her give public speeches.”
Close aides said she’ll spend the next few weeks meeting with party members, the media, diplomats, speaking by telephone with world leaders, getting back with her family – she hasn’t seen her two sons in a decade -- and possibly working to open a dialogue with the regime.
She’s also expected to try and reconcile divisions within Myanmar’s pro-democracy community after some members of her party disagreed with her decision to boycott the election and fielded candidates under the banner of the National Democratic Front.
Those who boycotted may be tempted to say, “I told you so” given the widespread perceived fraud, while many of those who opted to work within the system now feel disenchanted.
“It’s especially hurtful for someone like me, given that I supported the election,” said Khin Zaw Win. “The scale of the cheating and fraud boggles the mind.”
In the past, however, she has been one of the only people in Myanmar able to unify the diverse pro-democracy movement, ethnic parties and the public, one reason the regime fears her so much.
“We will all come back together,” said Thant Zin, a National Democratic Front candidate in the recent election who lost to a pro-regime candidate because of what he said was cheating. “She must lead us strongly. We must combine for Burmese democracy against our common foe.”
Insiders say vote fraud provides an ideal platform to gain traction quickly after years of living without a telephone, TV or the Internet, and having her mail heavily censored. “The regime was foolish,” said one member of civic society. “They gave her a huge gift with the cheating.”
Still unknown is the mood of the Burmese people in a country with no opinion polling or free press, and how they’ll respond to her. While many in feel angry and disenchanted for believing change was possible, polling day itself was largely subdued, suggesting that ordinary people had few illusions to start with.
Her release is not expected to have any immediate bearing on U.S. and European sanctions against Myanmar for human rights abuses, including its jailing of 2,100 political prisoners.
During the two-day wait leading up to her release, security officials photographed those waiting near her house as large trucks of riot police lingered wearing red scarves to symbolize combat readiness. But this failed to intimidate Burmese of all age, many with her picture pinned to their lapels or affixed to their hats.
“Aung San Suu Kyi is now able to speak for herself and we need to let her do that,” said Andrew Heyn, the British ambassador to Myanmar, who joined the crowd to “witness history.” “You can see from people’s reactions here how excited everyone is.”
Others said the only way change can occur in Myanmar is incrementally.
“My government is very powerful; you can’t fight the army,” said Aye Ko, an artist imprisoned in the early 1990s for being a student protester. “If Aung San Suu Kyi wants to make a revolution, big demonstrations, that’s a problem. You need to go slowly or you’ll be arrested again.”