Aung San Suu Kyi release brings joy, tears – and new hope for Burma

Burmese pro-democracy leader appears in front of cheering crowds after government barricades were swept away
Aung San Suu Kyi is freed in Burma
Burma’s pro-democracy leader and Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi talks to the supporters as she stands at the gate of her home in Rangoon. Photograph: Khin Maung Win/AP Photograph: Khin Maung Win/AP

Aung San Suu Kyi, the international symbol of peaceful resistance in the face of oppression, walked to freedom today after the military regime in Burma released her from house arrest.

The defiant and dignified Aung San Suu Kyi, who is known among her supporters as "The Lady", appeared in front of a weeping and cheering crowd who had rushed to her house in Rangoon after the government barricades were swept away.

Jubilation was tempered, however, by the reality that Burma is still in the grip of the generals who have run the country since overthrowing the democratically elected government more than 20 years ago and who cemented their hold last week in an orchestrated election.

Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel peace prize in 1991, acknowledged the crowds and urged them to work together. "I am so glad to see so many people here and so happy to be free," she said, standing on a stool and looking over the gate of the house where she had been confined for 15 of the last 21 years.

"There is a time to be quiet and a time to talk. People must work in unison. Only then can we achieve our goal."

After just 10 minutes outside, she returned to the home that is no longer her prison. Thousands of her supporters, many wearing T-shirts bearing her image alongside the words "We stand by Aung San Suu Kyi", stayed outside for several hours.

Aung San Suu Kyi emerged later, thanking her supporters, but urging them to go home to sleep.

While her term of detention has technically finished, it was not immediately clear how long that respite would last. During previous brief spells of freedom she has railed against, and defied, the conditions restricting where she could go – banning her from leaving Rangoon, for instance – and who she could meet.

The government says that this time her freedom will not be restricted. "She is completely free – there are no conditions at all," an unnamed senior government official was quoted as saying. But Aung San Suu Kyi's supporters fear her freedom may again be short-lived, and that the generals will seek to rearrest her on some technical infringement.

A defiant Aung San Suu Kyi, meanwhile, clearly intends to reimpose her leadership on Burma's splintered National League for Democracy (NLD). She promised to reveal her plans tomorrow at the headquarters of the NLD, a sign to the regime that she intends to fight on for democracy.

Her release was welcomed around the world, not least by her late husband's family in Britain. It is understood that she was able to speak on the phone to her youngest son, Kim, who is currently in Bangkok. She has not seen her two sons for 10 years, and Kim this week failed again in his attempt to get a visa to travel to Burma. He has two children whom Aung San Suu Kyi has never met.

Today was a "happy day", said Aung San Suu Kyi's British brother-in-law, Adrian Phillips. "We are obviously very pleased if it means we can contact her again after so many years of silence," Phillips said.

"The last time I spoke to her was when her husband [Michael Aris] died in 1999. There are all sorts of family matters that we haven't been able to talk to her about. She has a granddaughter, Jasmine, who she has never seen."

In the UK, David Cameron said Aung San Suu Kyi's release had been long overdue. The prime minister added: "Aung San Suu Kyi is an inspiration for all of us who believe in freedom of speech, democracy and human rights."

William Hague, the foreign secretary, said: "Aung San Suu Kyi's arbitrary detention for most of the past 20 years has been deeply unjust. Her fortitude in the face of this outrage has been inspirational.

"She must now be allowed to assume a role of her choosing in the political life of her country without further hindrance or restriction.

"Last week's sham elections will not bring peace and prosperity to Burma. The regime now needs to release the other 2,100 political prisoners and begin a genuine dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi and all opposition and ethnic groups. These remain the crucial first steps to solving Burma's many problems and addressing the pressing needs of its people."

Gordon Brown, the former prime minister, said: "There will be joy round the world at the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, the world's most renowned and courageous prisoner of conscience."

President Barack Obama described the woman who has spent most of the past two decades almost cut off from the world, as a hero.

"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," he said

Fellow Nobel laureates, meeting in Hiroshima, Japan, to campaign against nuclear weapons, welcomed her release. "For years we have been asking… for her release," FW de Klerk, the former president of South Africa, said. "We welcome it, and we hope it will last, and there won't be a regression of any nature."

Burmese state media last night attributed Aung San Suu Kyi's release to good conduct. "Aung San Suu Kyi behaved well according to the regulations during the period she was under a suspended sentence, so she was allowed to be released," government-run TV reported.

The report noted that Aung San Suu Kyi was "the daughter of the leader General Aung San who gave his life for Myanmar's [Burma's] independence". It also expressed a desire "not to hold a grudge against each other".

Aung San Suu Kyi was first imprisoned by Burma's military regime in June 1989. Since then, she has spent more than 15 years in secret detention, jail and under house arrest.

Her latest period of incarceration, her third, began in 2003. This final stretch of imprisonment was an 18-month sentence for having "received" an unauthorised visitor when an eccentric well-wisher, American John Yettaw, swam across a lake to her house in the middle of the night.


Jack Davies in Rangoon

The GuardianTramp

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