After days of eager anticipation, Aung San Suu Kyi was released Saturday having spent seven years under house arrest for defying Burma’s military rulers. She spoke briefly to a huge crowd of ecstatic supporters outside her lakeside villa in Rangoon, the former capital, who chanted her name and sang the national anthem.
One of the world’s most recognizable dissidents, Ms. Suu Kyi has long been a thorn in the side of Burma’s junta. Though President Obama and Western leaders immediately welcomed her release, most remain deeply skeptical of the regime’s intention and its repressive rule. British Prime Minister David Cameron said her release was “long overdue."
News photos showed the opposition leader smiling broadly as she stood at the gates to her house. She told her supporters that she would speak again Sunday at the headquarters of her defunct political party, then went back inside her house.
“There is a time to be quiet and a time to talk," she said, Reuters reported. "People must work in unison. Only then can we achieve our goal.”
The move comes less than a week after Burma held controversial elections to a new parliament that was won easily by a pro-junta party. Opposition leaders and independent monitors allege that the victory, while widely expected, was abetted by widespread vote-rigging.
Suu Kyi is likely to remain under close watch and could face curbs on her activities, though her lawyer has insisted that she wouldn’t accept any written restrictions. Whether she tries to test any limits set by the junta or takes a more cautious approach could have far-reaching repercussions on Burma’s political landscape.
Suu Kyi was last detained in May 2003 after a pro-junta mob attacked a convoy of her supporters. During the previous year, she had held mass meetings around the country that attracted huge crowds, a testament both to her star power and the deep unpopularity of the regime. She has spent 15 of the past 21 years in detention.
For many ordinary Burmese, Suu Kyi is a symbol of injustice and a link to a more hopeful past: her father, Gen. Aung San, was an independence hero in the 1940s. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 in recognition of her nonviolent struggle.
Western countries had pushed repeatedly for Suu Kyi’s release. But analysts say junta leader General Than Shwe is largely impervious to such pressure. His decision was more likely based on calculations that her release wouldn’t upset his strategy to hand power early next year to a civilian government dominated by retired generals.
Suu Kyi’s release could galvanize democracy activists and exiled supporters who reject the Nov. 7 election as illegitimate and prefer a more confrontational approach. But other opposition figures argue that it’s better to get a legal footing and push for change within the system, however limited their scope for action.
Khin Maung Shwe, a leader of the National Democratic Force (NDF), which won 16 seats in parliament, said his party had lodged a formal protest over the manipulation of advance ballots. A former NLD executive and political prisoner, he was among those in the party that disagreed with the Suu Kyi-endorsed boycott strategy and decided to participate.
Speaking on Friday, he described Suu Kyi as a democracy icon. “If she wants to see us, we’re always ready to see her. We have different views about the election,” he says.