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Rumours swirl in Burma over Suu Kyi release

Rumour and speculation about the imminent release of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi swept across Burma today but there was no word from the country's secretive military rulers about whether she would be freed.

Blogs and foreign news media went into overdrive amid a flurry of rumours that the charismatic leader of Burma's fight against dictatorship was set to walk free today or when her latest period of house arrest term expires a day later.

Reports quoted government insiders, state officials and well-connected sources as saying the country's reclusive leader, Senior General Than Shwe, had signed an order for her release.

But in one of the world's most secretive states, few outside the junta strongman's inner circle really know what is going on. Analysts and Burma-based diplomats say even his ministers are kept in the dark.

One government official said he believed Suu Kyi would be released but he could not confirm it.

"This is the nature of Than Shwe and his regime," said David Mathieson, a Burma specialist with Human Rights Watch based in neighbouring Thailand.

"Government people don't know, Suu Kyi's party doesn't know and the experts certainly don't know. No one knows any more than anyone else. We know her house arrest expires on Saturday and everything else is all within the realm of speculation."

Burma held its first election in 20 years last Sunday which was won by the military's Union Solidarity and Development Party. The vote was widely seen as flawed and fraudulent to ensure victory for the ruling generals' proxy.

With the election out of the way, the regime might seek to win some international legitimacy by freeing Suu Kyi at a time when she is little threat to the formation of a government it can choose and control.

Lawyers for Suu Kyi's now-defunct National League for Democracy (NLD) party, the winners of the 1990 election ignored by the generals, said they had heard nothing but felt confident she would be freed as scheduled.

About 400 people gathered in front of the NLD's headquarters, many holding placards with her picture. Some 300 others waited on the street outside her tightly guarded, crumbling lakeside home in Rangoon as rumours swirled she could be freed as early as today. Nothing could be confirmed.

There was also speculation Suu Kyi had rejected an offer of her conditional release and some media reported diplomats as visiting her. The crowds at both locations dispersed by nightfall after prominent NLD members urged them to go home.

Many believe expectation of her release is wishful thinking at such a critical juncture in a transition from dictatorship to army-dominated democracy.

The junta might see the release of Suu Kyi, the hugely popular daughter of Myanmar's independence hero, as a threat to its political process as a new government has yet to be formed.

In a county where the courts always favour the military, there could be any number of reasons the authorities could use to detain Suu Kyi beyond the 18 months she was given for allowing an American intruder to stay at her home for two nights last year.

Her unexpected visitor, John Yettaw, swam across a lake to her home to warn Suu Kyi "terrorists" would try to kill her, and God had sent him to save her.

The NLD, which was dissolved for boycotting Sunday's election, continues to operate illegally and some see that as a possible pretext to keep her locked up.

"I think the regime has been lenient with the NLD to lay a trap for her," said a retired civil servant.

Suu Kyi was first detained in 1989 and freed for the first time in 1995. She was detained again in 2000, released in 2002 and detained again in 2003 after she and some supporters were attacked by a gang on a trip to the provinces.

"I think she will be released but I am really worried about her safety," said roadside vendor Ma Kyi.

"May God take care of her."