As overjoyed crowds celebrated the release of Aung San Suu Kyi yesterday, their leader gave a message that tempered their jubilation with a call to action. For the woman who has made so many personal sacrifices for the sake of her country, the message was unchanged: until democracy comes to Burma, her work is unfinished. "If the people are not free, I am not free," she simply said.
Despite the continuing risks of taking on the junta, her focus yesterday remained firmly on those whose freedom is still more curtailed than her own has been. One is a young monk who risked everything to lead his robed brothers in protest on the streets; one is a famed comedian who dared publicly to criticise the junta. Yet another is a young blogger who took to the internet to share information about the 2007 democracy protests with the outside world.
Her message was taken up by her supporters both inside the country and abroad. As celebrations of Ms Suu Kyi's freedom continued, campaigners demanded that more than 2,200 political prisoners who remain behind bars in jails across the country must also be released. They said, too, that a week after widely condemned elections were won by the junta's proxy party, the generals' grip on power in Burma looked as firm as ever. If Ms Suu Kyi continues to press her demands for democracy, something she made clear she would do, then it will be difficult for her to avoid a collision with them – a collision of the type that has in the past led to her own return to captivity.
"We are pleased the military regime has released Ms Suu Kyi and we support her call to the regime to respect human rights and to restore the rule of law," said Sappho Dias, of the Burma Justice Committee, an organisation of British and US lawyers campaigning for the rule of law in Burma. "We urge the military regime to comply with their obligations under law and to immediately release these political prisoners."
Ms Suu Kyi stressed the need for dialogue and claimed, magnanimously, she held no antagonism to the military authorities who have detained her for 15 of the past 21 years. Yet she gave every indication she continued to see her role as someone at the forefront of the struggle for democracy.
Senior members of her National League for Democracy (NLD) suggested it was likely she would travel around the country, despite her experience in 2003 when her convoy was attacked by a government-sponsored mob and 70 of her supporters killed in Depayin in northern Burma. "You have to stand up for what is right," she said.
"Her speech demonstrates her remarkable courage, determination and commitment to the struggle for democracy in Burma. Her emphasis on unity, and her desire to listen to what the people want to tell her, is absolutely right," said Ben Rogers, author of a biography of the junta's senior general, Than Shwe, entitled Unmasking Burma's Tyrant. "The international community must put pressure on the generals to respond to her request for talks. If the generals refuse to talk, then she will once again be on a collision course with them and there would be real concerns for her safety, and the risk of her being re-arrested."
So far, say observers, Ms Suu Kyi has behaved wisely, stressing her desire to negotiate and listen, and avoiding making any strident comments. Derek Tonkin, who heads the Network Myanmar group, said she may be able to create some common cause with the junta by opposing international sanctions against the country. "I think she will take things slowly," he said.
One issue Ms Suu Kyi will need to address is possible divisions within the opposition. When the NLD voted to boycott the election, some members broke away to form the National Democratic Force, which participated in the polls. Yesterday, however, the NDF suggested any antagonism between the two groups could be healed. "We consider her a national leader and she does not belong to any single group. She belongs to the entire nation," the NDF's leader, Khin Maung Swe, told Reuters. "We are very anxious to hear her voice."
Despite her incarceration, the democracy leader demonstrated her ability yesterday to enthuse and delight a crowd, and to re-energise a country. But it is far from clear to what extent the authorities will allow her to reawaken the beleaguered democracy movement. It was pointed out to her that local newspapers would not be permitted to print her remarks, and she laughed, saying that, despite the election, nothing had changed.
Despite last week's election being won by the military-created Union Solidarity and Development Party, observers warn that the junta is deeply paranoid and insecure. From the thousands of people who risked being filmed by the secret police in attendance outside her party's headquarters when she spoke, the authorities will have been reminded of the unparalleled influence she continues to wield among ordinary people.
"All we are worried about now is whether she will be able to get a chance to work for the peace and prosperity of the country," Ba Ohn, a food stall owner in Rangoon, told reporters. "Things could not be worse for us."
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