Burmese hail freed dissident leader

Aung San Suu Kyi has been released after six years under house arrest. Tim McGirk reports
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese dissident leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, was yesterday freed unconditionally after nearly six years of house arrest by the military regime.

As fragile-looking as porcelain but with an unbreakable will, Ms Suu Kyi, 50, was placed under detention after her National League for Democracy won a landslide victory in a 1988 general election, and Burma's junta refused to step down. Instead, they arrested her and thousands of her party workers. The daughter of General Aung San, Burma's national hero and independence fighter, she was released yesterday afternoon but chose to remain in the house where she had spent years in solitude.

A neighbour of hers told the Independent in a telephone interview: "There are crowds of people outside her house. They're crying for joy. We're opening a bottle of champagne."

Ms Suu Kyi, who is married to a British academic, Michael Aris, received a stream of well-wishers inside her home on University Road where just the day before, soldiers chased away anyone who dared to pause in front of the gate to her lakeside residence.

The junta had tried to turn the 1991 Nobel laureate into a non-person: police removed the number from her house, but every Burmese knew where "the lady", as she was reverentially called, lived.

"At her request, guards are still kept at her house but she is an ordinary citizen now," said Colonel Kyaw Win, the deputy intelligence chief, who told her of the regime's decision to lift the restriction order without conditions.

Diplomats in Rangoon were elated but baffled by the news. Burma's military rulers had kept Ms Suu Kyi under a detention order that was renewed every 180 days. "We knew the detention order was running out, but we all thought it would be automatically renewed. Were we surprised!" said one diplomat contacted by telephone.

On Friday, Lieutenant-General Khin Nyunt, the most powerful member of the junta, declared that the rights of Burma's 45 million people had to come before the rights of "any single person", leading many diplomats to think the dissident's captivity would be extended once again.

The conditions which led to her release are still a mystery, but her supporters point out that Ms Suu Kyi has consistently refused to trade her release for a promise that she would abandon politics and leave Burma, as the military regime had earlier demanded. "It's possible that the generals now think they are in a strong enough position where they don't have to worry about her," one diplomat said.

The European Union, the US and Japan had applied pressure on the country's ruling State Law and Order Restoration Council (Slorc) to free Ms Suu Kyi, dangling the prospect of better trade ties. Awareness of repression has been heightened recently by the international release of a John Boorman film, Beyond Rangoon, based on the events which led to Ms Suu Kyi's detention.

Amnesty International hailed the release: "We are pleased that after six years of campaigning, Aung San Suu Kyi is finally free." The statement, released by the human rights group in Hong Kong, added, "We hope that no restrictions are placed on her freedom and that she is allowed to participate in her country's political process. We also hope the decision marks the beginning of a new policy to fundamentally improve Burma's human rights record."

For the past six years, Ms Suu Kyi has lived in almost total isolation in the big rambling house that once belonged to her father. She was denied newspapers, radio and television. Her British husband and two children were allowed to make short visits once a year. Her only other contacts were a maid who brought food and a military officer who would appear every six months with the grim news that her detention was being extended.

A shy-looking academic, Ms Suu Kyi had the nerve to defy the military repression that had reigned since 1962 and brought one of Asia's richest countries to ruin under the bizarre superstitions and whims of its long- time dictator, General Ne Win. For many Burmese, she remains the country's most defiant symbol of resistance to the military regime.