Suu Kyi is set to be freed 'within weeks'

Generals encourage hopes for democracy - but observers warn of empty gestures aimed at easing international sanctions
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As Burmese Buddhists let caged songbirds fly free as part of the Thervada New Year rites yesterday, supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader, hoped the ruling junta would follow suit and release the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize-winner after nearly a year of house arrest.

Riot police faced down hundreds of democracy activists who marched through Rangoon yesterday to demand freedom for Ms Suu Kyi. On the far side of Inya lake, opposite the villa where the National League for Democracy leader is held, an orderly crowd released fish from clay bowls and put a political spin on ancient Buddhist rituals. The generals released five other NLD leaders last week, and political analysts are optimistic that Burma's stoical "Titanium Orchid" will be next.

The release could come in time for her participation in a multi-party constitutional convention on 17 May which, the generals insist will be a step towards "free and fair elections", the first on a seven-step "roadmap" to democracy in Burma - or Myanmar, as the government prefers.

Results of the last election, held 14 years ago, were cancelled by the military after the NLD won a landslide victory. Ms Suu Kyi, the triumphal presidential candidate, has been locked up intermittently as a prisoner of conscience for almost nine years. Some 14 Nobel laureates, including Seamus Heaney, VS Naipaul and Günter Grass, formally petitioned Rangoon for her release late last week.

"I'm encouraged it's going to happen," said Razali Ismail, the UN special envoy. But more pessimistic Burma-watchers warn that the junta may be making easily reversible democratic gestures aimed at ending the country's status as an international pariah and easing economic sanctions.

A Western diplomat noted that without the main political opposition at the table, a new constitution would have no international legitimacy. But approving one would effectively scrap the 1990 results, a huge sacrifice for the NLD.

The military regime claims that it offered Ms Suu Kyi her freedom months ago, but that she refuses to leave her lakeside home in Rangoon until all 1,300 of her imprisoned party members are let go. Three jailed NLD leaders were escorted to visit her in secret last month, and they reportedly spoke for two hours about future political strategies. The party's 76-year old vice president, Tin Oo, is still detained, but senior politicians Aung Shwe and U Lwin, both comrades of Ms Suu Kyi's murdered father, were released last Tuesday.

Aung Shwe, 85, told reporters: "We did talk about their [the generals'] roadmap with her, but we have not made any decision yet. We will do it only after discussions among all nine central executive committee members."

NLD party headquarters in the city centre were unceremoniously reopened yesterday. Soldiers removed a padlock and chain fixed to the door with an official wax seal, which had been in place for nearly a year. Another sign that repression may be easing is the junta's failure to censor last month's Reader's Digest, which features Ms Suu Kyi's face on the cover and a six-page profile extolling her as "The Soul of a Nation". The magazine sold out in a day, and clandestine photocopies of the article continue to flood black markets from Rangoon to Mandalay. Allowing a graphic description of last May's "Black Friday" massacre to be openly sold was almost certainly intentional.

As many as 70 people are thought to have died on the night of 30 May 2003, when thousands of men armed with sticks and rocks attacked a convoy led by Ms Suu Kyi and NLD supporters. She was then locked in "protective custody".

Ms Suu Kyi's steely obstinacy attracts admirers worldwide: Bono, the activist rocker, penned a paean to the charismatic 58-year-old in this week's Time magazine. But her decade-long impasse with General Than Shwe has frustrated some young democrats. "Many observers, including former NLD members, find Aung San Suu Kyi's leadership rigid and uncompromising in negotiations with the military," David Steinberg, a Georgetown University professor, told The Washington Post earlier this month.

The NLD walked out of the first constitutional convention in 1996, after denouncing the draft document as undemocratic. Ms Suu Kyi had been banned from the meetings, and she was outraged by clauses that required military quotas in the government and that forbade office-holders to risk divided loyalty by marrying foreign spouses. That would have disqualified Ms Suu Kyi since her husband, the Tibetologist Michael Aris, was British. The Oxford don died of prostate cancer in 1999 without even a deathbed visit from his wife because she feared the generals would bar her return. Her sons Alexander and Kim live in the UK.

Held captive in her family home, she shows her resolve with a strict daily routine. She rises at 4:30am, pins blossoms in her hair, listens to the BBC World Service, then meditates, and works out on a treadmill. She passes time with embroidery, letter writing and re-reading literary classics. She plays the piano and retires by 9pm.

Last time she was freed from house arrest was in May 2002. Perhaps wary of derailing a possible reconciliation, the European Union postponed a draft resolution against systematic rights abuse in Burma, which was due to be put before the UN's top human rights body on Friday. It also had called for the immediate release of Ms Suu Kyi.

With trade sanctions against Burma coming up for a renewal vote in Congress, the US State Department recently lambasted the junta for its "egregious abuses" and "economic mismanagement" that have provoked a humanitarian crisis in a resource-rich nation.