Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi freed in Rangoon as crowds celebrate

By Steve Finch
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, November 13, 2010; 9:52 PM

RANGOON, BURMA - If Burma's elections last Sunday were a muted, stage-managed affair, Saturday's release of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi provided a sharply contrasting spectacle of exuberance as thousands of people flocked to her home in Rangoon after the barricades finally came down.

For the best part of two days, a crowd had been gathering outside the lakeside house amid speculation that Burma's ruling generals would end the Nobel Peace Prize laureate's latest term of house arrest.

In the beginning, the waiting supporters, journalists and curious onlookers had been relatively orderly.

"Everyone is afraid of being here," said Tun Aung Khaing, a member of Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, who was among the crowd Friday.

But by Saturday afternoon, the fear had dissipated. When 40 more armed guards were posted in a show of force, the crowd responded with jeers and retorts before moving back from the barbed-wire barricades as more than 30 NLD supporters sat down in protest. The group sat silently until the police left.

Other party supporters hid in the bushes to escape the attention of government informants bearing cameras, while bolder souls broke into songs and chants calling for the release of "the Lady."

Meanwhile, behind the barbed wire, junta officials were reportedly in discussions with Suu Kyi, according to a source close to the negotiations who spoke on the condition of anonymity. First they requested that she not leave Rangoon or give public speeches. She refused. Then they said those restrictions would be temporary, but Suu Kyi again declined to cooperate. Eventually, the source said, the regime agreed to her unconditional release.

As the last barriers were removed from the other side of the small strip outside her home on Rangoon's University Avenue Road, the military's grip on the crowd dissolved. Supporters dashed for the house, brushing past armed police officers. By then, the wait was nearly over.

Supporters were crammed against Suu Kyi's front gate and in nearby trees to catch the first glimpse of the opposition leader, and when she appeared, cheers rang out on the street. It was more than five minutes before the crowd was quiet enough for her to speak.

"I'm very happy to see you all again," she said softly, her words barely audible above the din.

She shook hands with her supporters as one handed her a garland of white and red flowers that she attached to the back of her hair. She was in good health, she said. It was time for Burma to come together after so many years of division. "People must work in unison," she said. "Only then can we achieve our goal."

Complex questions remain, many Burmese acknowledge. Will Suu Kyi seek to bridge the rift in her party that caused one faction to split off? Can she unite with other parties? And will the junta actually talk to her?

But there was little talk of politics Saturday. Looking older as she emerged from more than seven years of detention but smiling warmly at her cheering supporters, Suu Kyi told the crowd to come back to her party headquarters Sunday, when the real politics would start.

After a short speech, she retreated inside as other party members, including octagenarian Win Tin, arrived by car for discussions that also included her attorney Nyan Win.

Outside, Rangoon appeared transformed. On the main thoroughfare, Kaba Aye Pagoda Road, people were suddenly shouting Suu Kyi's name and sporting T-shirts with her image that they had not dared to wear before. It was an opportunity to vote, some said, just six days after theirs were denied in a landslide election victory for the junta.

Finch is a special correspondent.

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