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Aung San Suu Kyi released

The New York Times reports:

Myanmar’s pro-democracy leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, was freed from house arrest on Saturday, setting her on the path to a possible new confrontation with the generals who had kept her out of the public eye for 15 of the past 21  years.

As she stepped out of the lakeside compound where she had been confined, in her latest period of house arrest, for the last seven-and-a-half years, she was greeted by thousands of jubilant supporters, some of them in tears.She stood waving and smiling as people cheered, chanted and sang the national anthem in a blur of camera flashes. She held a white handkerchief in one hand.

“Thank you for welcoming me like this,” she said, clutching the iron bars of her gate as she looked out at the cheering crowd. “We haven’t seen each other for so long, I have so much to tell you.”

She said she would speak again on Sunday at the headquarters of her now defunct political party, the National League for Democracy.

“We must unite!” she said. “If we are united, we can get what we want.”

The junta did not make a public statement regarding her release. But her lawyer, U Nyan Win, was asked by someone in the crowd whether Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi was really free. “Yes,” he said. And shortly afterward, the barricades around her compound were removed, and the security men walked away.

Her release had been the leading demand of Western nations seeking to pressure the ruling junta on questions of human rights and political freedom. President Obama said in a statement that the United States welcomed “her long overdue release,” adding: “She is a hero of mine and a source of inspiration for all who work to advance basic human rights in Burma and around the world.”

But he continued his criticism of Myanmar’s junta. “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 that could change Burma,” he said from Japan, where is winding up an Asian trip. “It is time for the Burmese regime to release all political prisoners, not just one.”

Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi’s freedom was unlikely to lead to any immediate change in long-standing policies of isolation and sanctions by the United States and other Western powers. Western diplomats said they would assess the degree of liberty she would be afforded and watch the behavior of the military toward her.

Analysts said the generals in power might see less need to isolate her because long-awaited parliamentary elections, held just five days ago, were completed with the victory of the party they backed. But the elections were widely condemned outside the country, with Mr. Obama saying that the vote was “neither free nor fair” and failed to meet internationally accepted standards associated with legitimate elections. Mr. Win, her lawyer, had previously said that she intended to plunge again into political activities, no matter what restrictions might be placed on her. The possibility remained of future confrontations that would bring further condemnation from the West.

Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi, 65, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has come to symbolize nonviolent resistance both within and outside Myanmar, and what the playwright Vaclav Havel called “the power of the powerless.”

Though she long has had almost no contact with the world outside her lakeside villa, she has remained a symbol of hope for many in Myanmar, formerly Burma, that the generals could not overcome.

“She will be linking up with the people, who very much desire her release to work for democracy and human rights,” said U Tin Oo, deputy leader of the party, the National League for Democracy, who was himself released in February after seven years of detention.

“She will again lead the N.L.D.,” he said in a telephone interview. “She is already the democratic leader of Burma and an icon.”

The junta has released her twice before, in 1995 and 2002, calculating that her extended absence from public view had weakened her appeal. They were proved wrong. Huge, enthusiastic crowds greeted her wherever she went, particularly in 2002.

In both cases, she was returned to house arrest.

This time, said Josef Silverstein, a Myanmar specialist and professor emeritus at Rutgers University, “I think they feel pretty confident that they so controlled the election, that there was not much violence, a quietude, that they can take a chance on her freedom.”

But he added, “This woman didn’t go through hell to remain silent at this particular point.”

The parliamentary elections on Sunday were the first in 20 years. In the last, the National League for Democracy won in a landslide.

The generals annulled that result and clung to power. This month’s election was seen as their attempt to gain legitimacy. Though it will be dominated by the military, the new Parliament will be the first civilian government in the country since 1962.

The National League for Democracy refused to take part in the election, saying it was unfair and undemocratic. As a result it was forced to disband as a political party, and Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi now has no official standing as a political leader.

But not everybody accepts this.

“We at the N.L.D. still consider ourselves to be in existence,” said Mr. Tin Oo, the party deputy leader. “We still honor the result of 1990 and we will respect this. Nobody can hold an election until the problem of the 1990 election is resolved. This was the mandate of the people.”

Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi’s most recent term of house arrest began in 2003 after an attack on her motorcade by government-sponsored thugs that some people believe was an assassination attempt.

Her detention was extended in August last year when an American, John Yettaw, swam across a lake uninvited to her home, leading to a trial that convicted her of violating the terms of her detention. The date for the conclusion of her term was set in a message to the court from the leader of Myanmar’s junta, Senior Gen. Than Shwe.

In the past, as her terms neared completion, extensions would be imposed. But this time, it appeared that she might be freed as promised.

The crowd outside her party headquarters on Friday buzzed with anticipation. A man rode a bicycle near the house with a sign hanging from the handlebars with a picture of Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi and a poem titled “Until We Achieve Success.”

After she appeared, the crowd became euphoric. “She is our mother, she is our mother!” a woman said, near tears.


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Welcome! Who am I?

Anthony Clark Arend is Professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the Director of the Master of Science in Foreign Service in the Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Commentary and analysis at the intersection of international law and politics.