Leaders welcome release of Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma

Still holding fast to her dream of a truly democratic Burma, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was freed from house arrest Saturday, energetically telling a throng of jubilant supporters outside her gate that there was work ahead.

“If we work in unity, we will achieve our goal,” the beaming and confident Suu Kyi shouted to the cheering crowd. “We have a lot of things to do.”

It was a historic — and electric — moment for her supporters who had been waiting 7-1/2 years for her release. And Suu Kyi’s determined tone did not disappoint them.

They sang, chanted and cheered as Suu Kyi, wearing a light fuchsia coloured jacket, and perched on a platform behind her gate, appeared waving to them.

“I’m very happy to see you again,” she said smiling.

Moments before, military police had taken down the barricades in front of the lakeside villa, and her lawyer, doctor and several ethnic leaders, along with officials of her National League for Democracy, entered her home.

Suu Kyi, who was reported to have suffered an unidentified heart ailment earlier this year, appeared healthy and happy, clearing taking strength from her warm reception.

The key question now is how her former captors — the country’s military junta — will deal with the newly freed icon as she makes her way across the country, as her advisors say she ultimately will.

The last time she did so, in May 2003, she was the target of an assassination attempt by thugs believed to be backed by the military.

She was then immediately returned to house arrest where she has been ever since.

She remains a threat to the junta: in 1990 Suu Kyi won the last and only democratic election in Burma in a landslide, but the junta disallowed it and has kept her in detention for 15 of the past 21 years.

Last Sunday the junta held elections is a desperate bid to gain a veneer of political legitimacy, but they were widely condemned as fraudulent by the international community.

Details of Suu Kyi’s future plans could emerge Sunday, when she delivers a speech at her National Democratic League headquarters, where many expect she will set the tone for the way ahead.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has welcomed the release, calling Suu Kyi “an unwavering champion of peace.”

“Neither her trial nor appeal process were conducted in line with international standards. She was not granted due process and should never have been detained,” Harper in a statement issued from Yokohama, Japan, where he is attending a Pacific Rim summit.

Harper said Canada has long supported Suu Kyi in her efforts to bring genuine democracy to the country.

President Barack Obama called Suu Kyi “a hero of mine” said the United States “welcomes her long overdue release.”

“Whether Aung San Suu Kyi is living in the prison of her house, or the prison of her country, does not change the fact that she, and the political opposition she represents, has been systematically silenced, incarcerated, and deprived of any opportunity to engage in political processes,” he said in a statement.

British Prime Minister David Cameron also said the release was long overdue.

“Aung San Suu Kyi is an inspiration for all of us who believe in freedom of speech, democracy and human rights,” he said in a statement.

“It is now crucial that Aung San Suu Kyi has unrestricted freedom of movement and speech and can participate fully in her country’s political process,” European Commissioner Jose Manuel Barroso said.

Suu Kyi’s release is likely to provide a big boost to her party.

“There is no formal opposition (in Burma) so her release is going to represent an opportunity to re-energize and reorganize this opposition. So in that sense, of revitalizing the opposition in some concrete way, Suu Kyi’s release is going to be very pivotal,” said Muang Zarni, an exiled dissident and Burma research fellow at the London School of Economics.

But Suu Kyi herself earlier cautioned about optimism.

“My release should not be looked at as a major breakthrough for democracy. For all people in Burma to enjoy basic freedom, that would be a major breakthrough,” she said after her earlier release in 2002.

Suu Kyi was convicted last year of violating the terms of her previous detention by briefly sheltering an American man who swam uninvited to her lakeside home, extending a period of continuous detention that began in 2003 after her motorcade was ambushed in northern Burma by a government-backed mob.

Suu Kyi has shown her mettle time and again since taking up the democracy struggle in 1988.

Having spent much of her life abroad, she returned home to take care of her ailing mother just as mass demonstrations were breaking out against 25 years of military rule. She was quickly thrust into a leadership role, mainly because she was the daughter of Aung San, who led Burma to independence from Britain before his assassination by political rivals.

She rode out the military’s bloody suppression of street demonstrations to help found the NLD. Her defiance gained her fame and honour, most notably the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize.

Charismatic, tireless and outspoken, her popularity threatened the country’s new military rulers. In 1989, she was detained on trumped-up national security charges and put under house arrest. She was not released until 1995 and has spent various periods in detention since then.

Suu Kyi’s freedom had been a key demand of Western nations and groups critical of the military regime’s poor human rights record. The military government, seeking to burnish its international image, had responded previously by offering to talk with her, only to later shy away from serious negotiations.

Suu Kyi — who was barred from running in this month’s elections — plans to help probe allegations of voting fraud, according to Nyan Win, who is a spokesman for her party, which was officially disbanded for refusing to reregister for this year’s polls.

Such action, which could embarrass the junta, poses the sort of challenge the military has reacted to in the past by detaining Suu Kyi.

Awaiting her release in neighbouring Thailand was the younger of her two sons, Kim Aris, who is seeking the chance to see his mother for the first time in 10 years. Aris lives in Britain and has been repeatedly denied visas.

Her late husband, British scholar Michael Aris, raised their sons in England. Their eldest son, Alexander Aris, accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on his mother’s behalf in 1991 and reportedly lives in the United States.

Michael Aris died of cancer in 1999 at age 53 after having been denied visas to see his wife for the three years before his death. Suu Kyi could have left Burma to see her family but decided not to, fearing the junta would not allow her back in.

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