Excitement grows in Burma as Aung San Suu Kyi's release nears

Aung San Suu Kyi, the detained democracy leader who has been under house arrest since 2003, is set to be released on Saturday evening

Pornchai Kittiwongsakul/AFP Photo/Newscom
This 1999 file photo shows Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi answering questions from the press at her headquarters in Yangon. Lawyers for the 65-year-old Nobel Peace Prize winner, who has spent much of the past two decades locked up, say her current term of house arrest is due to end on November 13.

Less than a week after holding a much-criticized election, Burma’s (Myanmar) military rulers appear set to release Aung San Suu Kyi, the detained democracy leader. Her term of house arrest ends Saturday and people have already begun to gather in anticipation near her house, according to news reports and witnesses.

Once she is freed, Ms. Suu Kyi will remain under close watch and could face severe curbs on her activities, as was the case in the past. Aides to Suu Kyi have said that she wouldn’t accept any written restrictions in return for her freedom and that she had also sought to secure the release of Burma’s other political prisoners, currently estimated to exceed 2,200.

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, which has already begun to shift with the realignment of opposition forces and the emergence of new civil society groups.

In Rangoon, the former capital, word of the imminent release of "the lady," as she is known, from her secluded lakeside house has spread fast. “Almost everyone is talking about it or trying to go there,” says a Burmese nongovernmental organization official.

Suu Kyi's symbolic importance

Suu Kyi has rarely been seen in public since May 2003, when she was detained 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.

For many ordinary Burmese, she is a symbol of injustice and a link to a more hopeful past: Her father, General 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 have 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.

Were recent elections rigged?

Unofficial results from the Nov. 7 election point to a landslide for a pro-junta party. Opposition leaders and independent monitors allege that the victory, while widely expected, was abetted by widespread vote rigging. The National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Suu Kyi, boycotted the vote in protest at the unfair rules.

“It was quite a shock to everyone the extent to which they cheated after the election,” says a Western diplomat in Bangkok who observed the voting.

Suu Kyi’s release could galvanize NLD activists and exiled supporters who reject the 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.

He said he expected Suu Kyi to be released Saturday evening and described her 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.

IN PICTURES: Aung San Suu Kyi release

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