At 5:15 p.m., soldiers armed with rifles and tear-gas launchers pushed aside the barbed-wire barriers blocking University Avenue, and a swarm of supporters dashed the final 100 yards to the villa’s gate. Twenty minutes later, a slight 65-year-old woman popped her head over her red spiked fence.
Aung San Suu Kyi was free.
The jubilant crowd roared, and chants of “Long Live Suu Kyi” filled the air Saturday night as her supporters greeted the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and democracy activist who had defied Myanmar’s military leaders and paid a monumental price that robbed her of her family and a normal life.
“I’m 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 (pronounced Sue Chee), who has been detained for 15 of the last 21 years 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.”
But the charismatic opposition leader’s future was uncertain. If she pushes her activism too far in a country that has just seen elections widely decried as making a mockery of democracy, she could be arrested again by the regime.
In the past, she’s been barred from leaving Yangon, the former capital also known as Rangoon, or forced to gain approval from the military for trips. Eleven years ago, she faced a terrible choice: fly to her dying husband’s side in London, or remain in the country whose people’s rights she had spent decades defending.
She remained in her homeland.
Those principles, and her enormous sacrifice, have won her global acclaim, including the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize. On Saturday, President Obama praised the freed activist, and had harsh words for the regime.
“Whether Aung San Suu Kyi is living in the prison of her house, or the prison of her country, does not change the fact that she, and the political opposition she represents, has been systematically silenced, incarcerated, and deprived of any opportunity to engage in political processes,” he said in a statement.
But Suu Kyi has also earned criticism at home among some who are no fans of the regime but believe her desire to score political points by advocating international sanctions against the military government has taken a big toll on impoverished Burmese.
Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, won by a landslide in 1990, but the results weren’t honored by the regime. And the opposition party was forced to disband recently after deciding to boycott last weekend’s controversial elections.
Full election results have not been released, but officials of the Union Solidarity and Development Party, which is backed by the regime, have indicated that it has won close to 80% of the parliamentary 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. Obama accused the regime last week of “stealing” the elections.
As darkness settled Saturday over 54 University Ave. and Suu Kyi’s lakeside neighborhood, supporters rejoiced.
“I’m so happy she’s free,” said a 24-year old student who identified himself as Bositt and wore 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.”
The conditions of her release weren’t immediately clear. She had vowed to remain in detention, where she had no telephone, TV or Internet and her mail was heavily censored, unless given an unconditional release.
“I don’t think they’ll try and rearrest her quickly,” said a former political prisoner who spoke on condition of anonymity. “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 will spend the next few weeks meeting with party members, journalists, diplomats, speaking by telephone with world leaders, getting back in touch 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 to reconcile divisions within Myanmar’s pro-democracy community after some members of her party disagreed with her decision to boycott last week’s elections and fielded candidates under the banner of the National Democratic Force.
Those who boycotted may be tempted to say “I told you so” because of the allegations of 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 activist Khin Zaw Win. “The scale of the cheating and fraud boggles the mind.”
Suu Kyi, however, has been one of the few people in Myanmar able to unify the diverse pro-democracy movement, ethnic parties and the public. That’s one reason the regime fears her so much.
“We will all come back together,” said Thant Zin, a National Democratic Force candidate in the recent election who lost to a pro-regime candidate because of what he called 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.
“The regime was foolish,” one person said. “They gave her a huge gift with the cheating.”
Still unknown is the mood of the people, and how they’ll respond to her. Although many Burmese who participated in the vote feel angry and disenchanted after believing change was possible, election day itself was largely quiet, suggesting that 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 its repression, including its jailing of more than 2,000 political prisoners.
For two days before her release, security officials photographed those waiting near her house as riot police officers lingered, wearing red scarves to symbolize combat readiness.
But this failed to intimidate Burmese of all ages, many of whom had 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 change can come to Myanmar only incrementally.
“My government is very powerful. You can’t fight the army,” said Aye Ko, an artist imprisoned in the early 1990s as 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.”
The writer is unidentified to protect those who work with him.