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Questions remain about whether conditions have been attached to release by military junta
Myanmar’s military government freed its arch-rival — democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi — on Saturday after her latest term of detention expired. Several thousand jubilant supporters streamed to her residence.
A smiling Suu Kyi appeared at the gate of her compound as the crowd chanted, cheered and sang the national anthem.
“I haven’t seen you for a long time,” the 65-year-old Nobel Peace Prize Laureate said to laughter, smiling deeply as she held the metal spikes that top the gate. When a supporter handed up a bouquet, she pulled out a flower and wove it into her hair.
Speaking briefly in Burmese, she told the crowd, which quickly swelled to as many as 5,000 people: “If we work in unity, we will achieve our goal.”
Sky’s reporter was working in secret like other correspondents because of restrictions on journalists imposed by the government, the broadcaster said. The unidentified reporter said she ran with supporters through the streets of Yangon to reach Suu Kyi’s house after news of her release came through.
Suu Kyi, 65, whose latest period of detention spanned 7 1/2 years, has come to symbolize the struggle for democracy in the Southeast Asian nation ruled by the military since 1962.
However it was still unclear whether the rulers of Myanmar, also known as Burma, had imposed any conditions on her release and whether she would accept them, NBC News said.
The release from house arrest of one of the world’s most prominent political prisoners came a week after an election that was swept by the military’s proxy political party and decried by Western nations as a sham designed to perpetuate authoritarian control.
Supporters had been waiting most of the day near her residence and the headquarters of her political party. Suu Kyi has been jailed or under house arrest for more than 15 of the last 21 years.
Police leave, barbed wire removed
As her release was under way, riot police stationed in the area left the scene and a barbed-wire barricade near her residence was removed, allowing the waiting supporters to surge forward.
In a statement, Barack Obama said Suu Kyi was “a hero of mine” and added that those who had oppressed Myanmar’s people should be held accountable.
“While the Burmese regime has gone to extraordinary lengths to isolate and silence Aung San Suu Kyi, she has continued her brave fight for democracy, peace, and change in Burma,” he said. “She is a hero of mine and a source of inspiration for all who work to advance basic human rights in Burma and around the world. The United States welcomes her long overdue release.”
“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 that could change Burma,” he added.
Obama said that the U.S. was looking forward to the day “when all of Burma’s people are free from fear and persecution.”
“It is time for the Burmese regime to release all political prisoners, not just one,” he said. “Following Aung San Suu Kyi’s powerful example, we recommit ourselves to remaining steadfast advocates of freedom and human rights for the Burmese people, and accountability for those who continue to oppress them,” he said.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said Suu Kyi’s release was long overdue. “Aung San Suu Kyi is an inspiration for all of us who believe in freedom of speech, democracy and human rights,” he said in a statement.
“It is now crucial that Aung San Suu Kyi has unrestricted freedom of movement and speech and can participate fully in her country’s political process,” European Commissioner Jose Manuel Barroso said.
But Justin Wintle, Suu Kyi’s biographer, told BBC News that her freedom could be short-lived.
“If she resumes where she left off in 2003 — campaigning against the regime — I’m afraid the likelihood is that she will return to house arrest fairly soon,” he told the U.K. broadcaster. “However … we are allowed to hope.”
Critics allege the Nov. 7 elections were manipulated to give the pro-military party a sweeping victory.
Results have been released piecemeal and already have given the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party a majority in both houses of Parliament.
The previous elections in 1990 were won overwhelmingly by Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, but the military refused to hand over power and instead clamped down on opponents.
Suu Kyi was convicted last year of violating the terms of her previous detention by briefly sheltering an American man who swam uninvited to her lakeside home, extending a period of continuous detention that began in 2003 after her motorcade was ambushed in northern Myanmar by a government-backed mob.
Suu Kyi has shown her mettle time and again since taking up the democracy struggle in 1988.
Leadership thrust upon her
Having spent much of her life abroad, she returned home to take care of her ailing mother just as mass demonstrations were breaking out against 25 years of military rule.
She was quickly thrust into a leadership role, mainly because she was the daughter of Aung San, who led Myanmar to independence from Britain before his assassination by political rivals.
She rode out the military’s bloody suppression of street demonstrations to help found the NLD. Her defiance gained her fame and honor, most notably the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize.
Charismatic, tireless and outspoken, her popularity threatened the country’s new military rulers.
In 1989, she was detained on trumped-up national security charges and put under house arrest. She was not released until 1995 and has spent various periods in detention since then.
Suu Kyi’s freedom had been a key demand of Western nations and groups critical of the military regime’s poor human rights record.
The military government, seeking to burnish its international image, had responded previously by offering to talk with her, only to later shy away from serious negotiations.
Suu Kyi — who was barred from running in this month’s elections — plans to help probe allegations of voting fraud, according to Nyan Win, who is a spokesman for her party, which was officially disbanded for refusing to reregister for this year’s polls.
Such action, which could embarrass the junta, poses the sort of challenge the military has reacted to in the past by detaining Suu Kyi.
Son hopes to visit
Awaiting her release in neighboring Thailand was the younger of her two sons, Kim Aris, who is seeking the chance to see his mother for the first time in 10 years. Aris lives in Britain and has been repeatedly denied visas.
Her late husband, British scholar Michael Aris, raised their sons in England. Their eldest son, Alexander Aris, accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on his mother’s behalf in 1991 and reportedly lives in the United States.
Michael Aris died of cancer in 1999 at age 53 after having been denied visas to see his wife for the three years before his death. Suu Kyi could have left Myanmar to see her family but decided not to, fearing the junta would not allow her back in.
Her release could be the first step towards a review of Western sanctions on the resource-rich country, the largest in mainland Southeast Asia and labeled by rights groups as one of the world’s most corrupt and oppressive.
It might also divert some attention from an election widely dismissed as a sham to cement military power under a facade of democracy.
“The regime needs to create some breathing space urgently,” said a retired Burmese academic, who asked not to be identified. “They may do that by releasing her and might think it will help improve an image tarnished by electoral fraud.”
Many experts say the sanctions also benefit the junta, allowing generals and their cronies to dominate industry in the country of 50 million, rich in natural gas, timber and minerals with a strategic port in the Bay of Bengal.
Trade with the West has been replaced by strengthening ties with China, Thailand and Singapore, whose objections to the regime’s human rights record are relatively muted.