Burma's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was finally released from house arrest in Rangoon at around 5 pm on Saturday, welcomed enthusiastically by a wide public still angry and disappointed by the results of Sunday's election.
“Long live Daw Aung San Suu Kyi,” cheered several thousands of her supporters near her house on University Avenue in Rangoon, in welcoming their leader, who has continued to inspire Burma's oppressed people with her non-violent democratic struggle against the rogue regime throughout the past two decades.
“I can't describe how happy I am. I am so happy. She is our savior because she is the only one who can do what's best for the country,” said an old man who had waited near her house for news of the release since early this morning.
Several of her supporters waiting near her house were seen breaking into tears of happiness when they heard the news of her release. Some also waved to the Burmese soldiers who left the compound, which has been a prison for the Nobel Peace Prize laureate for 15 years of the past 21 years.
At 5:45 pm local time, Suu Kyi appeared before the crowd—estimated to number at least 10,000—to give a ten-minute speech.
“We have not seen each other for a long time. There are so many things to talk about,” Suu Kyi said to the crowd, which responded with loud cheers and clapping.
Dressed in a light purple blouse and urging the crowd to calm down, she made a peace sign with her fingers. She was also seen taking a flower from a supporter and putting it in her hair.
“Please have understanding with each other,” she said. “Let's work hand in hand.”
“Please tell the people in the back of the crowd what I am saying now,” she said. “If you all want to hear more, please come to the NLD office at 12:00 pm tomorrow.”
Even after she went back into her compound, thousands of people refused to leave, hoping to have another glance of their leader.
“This is a chance for us to really express our desire,” said one supporter. “Not like last week's election.”
Witnesses said Suu Kyi appeared to be in good health. One British diplomat at the scene commented on her “great beauty.”
Her release came five days after the country's military regime held an election on Sunday marred by reports of widespread vote rigging. The junta's proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), was officially credited with winning 80 percent of parliamentary seats, despite strong popular opposition.
“She will draw huge crowds and receive strong public support as she did when she was last freed,” said Tin Oo, Suu Kyi's deputy and the vice-chairman of her National League for Democracy (NLD) party.
The NLD was officially disbanded after failing to register for the controversial election, which it boycotted on the grounds that it was held under undemocratic conditions. Although the party leaders continued to carry out party activities and gatherings, the junta has not yet outlawed it as an unlawful organization.
It remains uncertain how much freedom the regime would grant her even though she was supposed to be unconditionally released.
“The junta will surely attempt to restrict her movements so that she cannot reach out to the public and ethnic minority groups,” said Suu Kyi's lawyer, Nyan Win. “But she will not accept such restrictions.”
“The release shows that the government is quite confident of its control of the country because there is a lot of public resentment against vote fraud, which has been clearly exposed,” said Aung Naing Oo, a Burmese political analyst based in Thailand.
“She was released because her sentence has legally expired, but in countries like Burma that does not matter as much as the realities on the ground,” he added. “The current military rule continues and the rulers can still use several laws to detain her again.”
The 65-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate has been released twice before during the 15 years of the past 21 years that she has spent under house arrest.
In August 2009, Suu Kyi's house arrest was extended by 18 months after she was convicted of harboring an American who swam uninvited to her lakeside home.
The daughter of Burma's independence hero Aung San is expected not only to reconsolidate her party but also to reach out to a splinter group that formed a new party to contest the election, which the NLD refused to participate in, as well as other opposition groups that took part in the polls.
The leaders of the breakaway party, the National Democratic Front (NDF), said that they are willing to cooperate with Suu Kyi, but are uncertain if she will be willing to talk to them.
“Since we are former colleagues, we believe she will offer to talk with us,” said Dr. Than Nyein, the leader of the NDF, which was roundly defeated by the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which allegedly benefited from widespread vote rigging.
Suu Kyi will also have to renew her efforts to find some way to deal with Burma's ruling generals. During the past 20 years, Suu Kyi has unsuccessfully called for dialogue with the military junta in an attempt to break the country's political deadlock.
Observers question whether that call will remain relevant given that the election results have paved the way for continued military rule by members of the current junta, which will control the new parliament with a civilian facade. The results have been recognized by Burma's largest and most influential neighbor, China, and by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which Burma is a member.
In addition to internal divisions within her party, a major issue confronting her is a recent increase in ethnic tensions, which have heightened since the run-up to the election over the junta's border guard force (BGF) plan aimed at assimilating all armed ethnic groups under its command in the post-election era.
Soon after the Sunday election, deadly clashes broke out between Karen rebel soldiers and Burmese troops in Myawaddy Township in Karen State. Tensions between the regime and the two largest cease-fire groups, the Kachin Independence Army and the United Wa State Army, both of which have rejected the BGF plan, also remain high.
“Daw Suu would actively work towards calling for a second Panglong Convention to resolve the ethnic issues,” said Win Htein, one of Suu Kyi's personal aides, referring to the 1947 Panglong Agreement which provided the basis for a federal union in the aftermath of the country's independence from British rule in 1948.
Another issue that will need to be addressed is the fate of other political prisoners who remain behind bars. Despite Suu Kyi's release, the junta continues to hold more than 2,100 prisoners of conscience, including prominent former student leaders who have been sentenced to up to 60 years imprisonment.
But what many residents of Rangoon are most eager to know about is how Suu Kyi will respond to the election results, according to one of her supporters in the former capital.
“We are expecting her clear leadership, because we are confused and angry about the elections. We will see how she copes with the illegal status of the NLD and responds to the election results and the new government,” he said.