Hundreds cheer Suu Kyi, freed after 19-month detention

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The Independent Online

Hundreds of party supporters thronged the approach to Aung San Suu Kyi's lakeside home yesterday morning as the world's most celebrated political prisoner emerged a free woman. She climbed into a white Toyota and was driven to party headquarters in Rangoon where thousands more cheered her arrival.

For Burma these were epoch-making scenes. When Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide victory in general elections in 1990, the ruling junta threw the successful candidates in jail or drove them into exile. The country has lived in fear since.

Yesterday, Suu Kyi's hair was full of jasmine, the skin of her face drawn only fractionally tighter across those high cheekbones than the last time we were able to see her in public, 19 months ago.

But her eyes were full of life, the voice calm, firm, poised and reasonable. The leader of Burma's desperately beleaguered democrats did not have the air of someone who had just emerged from a long stretch of solitary, a hostage finally released from her shackles. The 56-year-old daughter of Aung San, hero of Burma's independence struggle, might have just dropped in to her party's HQ after a morning stroll around the lake.

Less than two weeks ago, Razali Ismail, the United Nations special envoy, told reporters to expect "something big" in the next few days. The release ended more than a year of tortuous negotiations between Suu Kyi and the generals, brokered by Mr Ismail.

The government groped for an accommodation with the democratic leader whose incarceration, has made Burma an international pariah. Her long captivity provoked painful economic sanctions and led to the drying-up of international investment. And perhaps most significantly of all, her liberation came less than two months after the junta spiked an attempted coup d'état by close relatives of Ne Win, the 92-year-old former general who seized power in 1962 and ruled Burma with an iron fist for 26 years. Suu Kyi's NLD had attacked Ne Win's tyrannical and cranky policies most vigorously when the party blossomed in Burma's brief democratic spring in 1988. And after Ne Win reasserted his authority a few months later, he came down on the budding democrats with all the force of a powerful grudge.

Today Ne Win's son-in-law and his three grandsons are under arrest and he is confined to his villa across the lake from Suu Kyi's. With the removal from the political scene of this most inveterate and irrational enemy of "The Lady", as all Burma calls Suu Kyi, compromise and sanity were at last able to make their voices heard.

The last time Suu Kyi was freed she was not allowed to leave Greater Rangoon. This time the regime was quick to confirm that she would be able to go where she liked, to travel inside and outside the country, and do what she chose, including political activity.

Suu Kyi said yesterday: "I hope to be able to carry out all my duties for my party and my country in the best possible way." But she cautioned about reading too much into her freedom alone. "My release should not be looked at as a major breakthrough for democracy," she said. "For all people in Burma to enjoy basic freedom, that would be the major breakthrough."

Suu Kyi and the generals have a lot of ground to cover if there is to be real political change in Burma. Hundreds of NLD members remain in prison. The party insists it is the rightful government. The two sides cannot even agree on the country's name. Democrats believe the name Myanmar was imposed by the army. The world will be watching the next steps keenly.

Countdown years of ordeal

Aung San Suu Kyi

Born in Rangoon 1945. Father General Aung San, hero of Burma's independence struggle, assassinated July 1947;

1967: BA (Hons) PPE, St Hugh's College, Oxford

1972: Marries Dr Michael Aris, British Tibetologist. Two sons, Alexander and Kim;

1988: Returns to Burma to nurse ailing mother. Dictator Ne Win resigns and democracy blooms. National hero's daughter acclaimed leader. For a year travels Burma addressing huge rallies;

July 1988: house arrest;

May 1990: NDL wins landslide election victory. Democrats repressed;

1991: Awarded Sakharov prize and Nobel peace prize. In July, released from house arrest, but movement and political activities curbed;

1998: Suu Kyi fails to get out of Rangoon;

March 1999: Husband dying of cancer, but Suu Kyi unable to visit him in UK. Dr Aris dies on 27 March;

2000: House arrest follows confrontations;

2000: Awarded US Presidential Medal of Freedom;

6 May 2002: Released.