Nov. 13, 2010 AP
YANGON, Myanmar – Myanmar democracy heroine Aung San Suu Kyi tasted
freedom Saturday for the first time in 7 1/2 years, as jubilant supporters
stormed the lakeside compound that was her home and prison minutes after
the country's military rulers authorized her release.
After the national police chief read Suu Kyi the official order, several
thousand supporters at her residence began singing the national anthem
when the Nobel Peace Prize laureate poked her head over the gate.
Wearing a traditional Burmese jacket, Suu Kyi was given bouquets of
flowers from admirers. She removed one and put it in her hair as the crowd
clapped and cheered.
A smiling Suu Kyi spent almost 10 minutes asking throngs of chanting
supporters to quiet down before speaking briefly. She asked listeners to
spread her words to those standing in the back who couldn't hear.
"If we work in unity, we will achieve our goal. We have a lot of things to
do," Suu Kyi told well-wishers, who quickly swelled to as many as 5,000.
She said she would see them again Sunday at the headquarters of her
While her release elated many, from ordinary Myanmar citizens to world
leaders, some warned her struggle was far from over.
London-based rights group Amnesty International estimates more than 2,200
political prisoners remain jailed by the junta.
"While Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's release is certainly welcome, it only marks
the end of an unfair sentence that was illegally extended, and is by no
means a concession on the part of the authorities," said Amnesty's
Secretary-General Salil Shetty.
"The fact remains that authorities should never have arrested her or the
many other prisoners of conscience in Burma in the first place, locking
them out of the political process."
The release 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
Click image to see photos of Aung San Suu Kyi's release
REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun
The 65-year-old, whose latest period of detention started in May 2003, has
come to symbolize the struggle for democracy in the Southeast Asian nation
ruled by the military since 1962. Suu Kyi has been jailed or under house
arrest for more than 15 of the last 21 years.
Supporters had been waiting most of the day near her residence and the
headquarters of her party.
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.
Mya Kyi, a 65-year-old housewife with tears rolling down her face, said
she had waited anxiously since the morning after traveling 25 miles (40
kilometers) from her home north of Yangon. "Now that I have seen her face,
I'm ready to die," she said.
Suu Kyi's release was immediately welcomed by world leaders.
President Barack Obama called Suu Kyi "a hero of mine" and said 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," Obama said in a statement.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon praised Suu Kyi upon her release. "Her
dignity and courage in the face of injustice have been an inspiration to
many people around the world," Ban said in a statement.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said her freedom 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.
In a rare mention of the opposition leader, state television announced
Saturday night that national police chief Maj. Gen. Khin Yee visited Suu
Kyi at 5 p.m. to read the official release order.
Khin Yee said he was happy to see Suu Kyi in good health, and that the
authorities were ready to provide any assistance she needs, the report
The police chief told her authorities want to maintain the rule of law,
peace, stability and tranquility, and Suu Kyi replied "she feels the same
way, too," it said.
Critics say 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 last 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's release gives the junta some ammunition against critics of the
election and the government's human rights record, which includes the
continued detention of some 2,200 political prisoners and brutal military
campaigns against ethnic minorities.
It is unlikely the ruling generals will allow Suu Kyi, who drew huge
crowds of supporters during her few periods of freedom, to actively and
publicly pursue her goal of bringing democracy to Myanmar, formerly known
But some see hope in her release.
"There is no formal opposition (in Myanmar) so her release is going to
represent an opportunity to re-energize and reorganize this opposition. So
in that sense, of revitalizing the opposition in some concrete way, Suu
Kyi's release is going to be very pivotal," said Maung Zarni, an exiled
dissident and Myanmar research fellow at the London School of Economics.
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
Suu Kyi has shown her mettle time and again since taking up the democracy
struggle in 1988.
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
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.
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
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.