Date with destiny for Aung San Suu Kyi

Burma's heroine could be just hours from freedom

At the offices of her beleaguered political party in the centre of Rangoon, loyal supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi were sweeping up the dust, hanging up banners and getting themselves ready. Perhaps they were hoping against hope, being led more by their hearts than their heads. If so, then so too were millions more people across Burma, and around the world.

Seven years after the jailed democracy leader was last made a prisoner in her own home, Ms Suu Kyi's supporters were cautiously optimistic that tomorrow she may be finally released from house arrest. Some believe she could even be freed later this evening and that one of her sons may be there to greet her.

The military authorities who oversaw last weekend's controversial election have given no formal indication the 65-year-old will be released when her current term of detention formally expires tomorrow. Yet members of her National League for Democracy (NLD) have been cleaning their offices in anticipation and foreign diplomats are readying themselves for the opportunity to meet her. In Rangoon, said one Western diplomat, there was a "mood of hope, and yet expectation."

"I believe she will released on the evening of 13 November," said her lawyer, Nyan Win. "We have no plans for a celebration, but it will be a very happy occasion for our beloved Lady."

Many warn against such expectation. In Rangoon, where security is tight, the mood remains outwardly calm despite the anxiety of Ms Suu Kyi's supporters. Another diplomat said it was more likely that the Nobel laureate would not be set free. On previous occasions when she was due to be released, the junta changed its mind.

In such circumstances, her supporters are doing what they can. At the NLD's modest headquarters, a converted shop at the foot of Rangoon's golden Shwedagon pagoda, members have prepared a "drawing room" where she will meet party leaders, said her close ally Win Tin, himself a former political prisoner who spent 19 years in jail, most of them in solitary confinement. "We have a plan that she will meet members of the party, and then be reunited with close friends and family," he said. "But we have no idea when she will be released exactly. We are worried we may not know, because she has no phone."

Outside the office, party activists have hung portraits of Ms Suu Kyi, and her father, the revered independence fighter General Aung San who was assassinated nine months before Burma gained independence from Britain in 1948. In Burmese numerals, they have also been counting down the days to her anticipated release.

The NLD leader was to have been released last spring. But the junta seized on a bizarre incident in which an uninvited American citizen swam to her home and stayed for two days. She was charged with breaching the conditions of her detention and sentenced to a further 18 months' house arrest, a move that was widely seen as having been undertaken to ensure she could not participate in the widely criticised election, held last Sunday, in which a pro-establishment party claimed victory. By no small irony, Burma's Supreme Court yesterday rejected Ms Suu Kyi's final appeal against her conviction.

According to party officials and initial results released by the authorities, the military's proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), won by a landslide. Anti-government parties say the scale of the victory was only made possible by fraud and vote-rigging. Such anger feeds the souls of those who wish for change in a country that has spent decades under the rule of military dictators.

"People don't like the poll results and they are waiting to see what the opposition parties and the NLD will do," said a journalist for a Burmese newspaper. "We also heard that Daw Suu might be released this weekend, and we are hoping that might actually happen. If she is free, she might do something. We are hoping for that. We are waiting for that good news."

Elsewhere, voters swapped anecdotes about bags full of "advance votes" arriving at polling stations late at night, filled with enough USDP votes to overturn victories by the National Democratic Force (NDF), which broke away from the NLD to participate in the election. One office worker said the NDF even won in the Mingaladon township, which is home to most of Rangoon's military barracks, but that result too was overturned.

Anticipation about the possible release of Ms Suu Kyi was further fuelled by a report earlier this week by the Agence France-Presse, quoting an unidentified government official who said she would be set free. Speculation mounted further yesterday when it was reported that one of her sons, Kim Aris, had finally been granted a visa to travel to Burma to see his mother for the first time in a decade. However, the purported source of that report, Nyan Win, said he could not confirm that the visa had been granted.

The release of Ms Suu Kyi would create huge shockwaves. Yet activists warn, even if it were to happen, the West should not stop putting pressure on Burma, where more than 2,200 political prisoners remain.

"As experience has shown us through previous times that Ms Suu Kyi has been released, it would be wrong to assume that it is a portent of possible democratic change," said the Burma Campaign UK.

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