A day of swirling expectation and excitement pulsing through Burma ended last night with many questions but few answers. Crucially, there was also no sign of the detained democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose release had been widely anticipated.
During the day, hundreds of the democracy leader's supporters had gathered outside the simple offices of her National League for Democracy (NLD) in the centre of Rangoon, spilling out of the few cramped rooms and on to the roadside. Inside, elderly party activists sat on the floor. On the pavement sat young men, their arms linked in solidarity while beneath them, a grey-haired woman sat grimly on the kerb, holding up a portrait of Ms Suu Kyi, hoping this would be the day she would see her hero again.
Such was the level of expectation among the stalwart supporters, that a press conference featuring the Nobel laureate herself had even been planned. Rumours circulated that the junta's leaders in the jungle capital, Naypyidaw, had already signed release papers and delivered them to her house on University Avenue, where smaller crowds had gathered a few hundred metres from her front gate. Some observers suggested the delay was the result of negotiations over the conditions to her release.
But by yesterday evening, hope was starting to turn to disappointment as members of a government-created militia, the Swan Arr Shin, arrived at the NLD office close to the gleaming Shwedagon pagoda, and started to threaten people. Many supporters, some wearing T-shirts saying "We stand with you", began to drift away and jump on battered buses for the journey home. "She will not be released tonight," one of her lawyers, Nyan Win, said last night. "We are hoping that tomorrow [today], she will be released."
The woman known to her supporters as The Lady may not have been released – unless the junta opted for a late-night release as it did with another political prisoner, U Tin Oo – but a sense of optimism still permeates the streets and alleyways of the crumbling former capital and today the crowds of supporters will gather again, leaving their houses at dawn to repeat the brave act of defiance and to show their leader – if indeed she is released – that her light is not dimmed. Their courage is steadfast. Across the street from the NLD office stood dozens of plain-clothed military intelligence officers, taking photographs and talking on their mobile phones. Two armed uniformed officers perched on a balcony of a hotel across the street.
NLD activists know the risks they are taking when they show open support for the party. Hundreds of their members are among the estimated 2,200 political prisoners, and the peaceful uprisings of 1988 and 2007 have shown that the military regime is willing to shoot its own citizens when it feels its power is threatened. "I had to come here, I am not afraid," said one young man, smiling and giddy from the sense of solidarity that had swept the crowd. "She is our example. She has no fear so neither do we." Another resident of Rangoon, a 58-year-old office manager, said: "We are happy but concerned. Happy because we think that she will be released, but concerned that the authorities might incite violence and use that excuse to put her back under arrest."
Ms Suu Kyi, the daughter of the assassinated independence hero General Aung San, has spent 15 of the past 21 years either in jail or under house arrest. Her present term of detention officially expires today. Yet the authorities have made no public statement on whether she will be set free. "This is the nature of Than Shwe and his regime," David Mathieson, a Burma expert with Human Rights Watch based in Thailand, told Reuters. "We know her house arrest expires and everything else is all within the realm of speculation."
Ms Suu Kyi was to have been released from house arrest last spring. But an uninvited American visitor, John Yettaw, swam to her lakeside house and spent two nights there. The authorities seized this to charge her with breaching the conditions of her detention and sentenced her to a further 18 months of house arrest. She has said she will not accept any conditions the junta might try to attach to her release.
The move to keep her detained was widely seen as little more than an attempt to remove Ms Suu Kyi from the scene while controversial parliamentary elections were held last weekend. A proxy party for the junta, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, has claimed victory. Numerous opposition parties, including the National Democratic Force, which broke from the NLD to participate in the election, have complained of vote-rigging and fraud.