Joy mixed with doubt as Suu Kyi's release conditions remain unclear
Aung San Suu Kyi's rallying cry to jubilant followers raises prospect of fresh showdowns with Burma's military junta
WITH a trademark spray of jasmine flowers in her hair and defiance in her heart, Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi greeted cheering supporters yesterday after her release from house arrest.
"I'm very happy to see you all again," the Nobel peace laureate said, as she gripped the top of the iron gates outside the dilapidated lakeside villa that has been her prison for 15 of the last 21 years. "We must work together in unison."
After asking her jubilant followers to return at noon today, when she plans to address them again, she then headed back inside for discussions with fellow leaders of the outlawed National League for Democracy.
But her brief rallying call was a clear signal that Ms Suu Kyi is determined to return to the political fray in her long fight against the military dictatorship -- raising the prospect of fresh showdowns with the ruling junta.
The release of the world's most famous political prisoner, the figurehead of the peaceful struggle against the brutal generals who have run the former British colony since 1962, was hailed by leaders around the world.
But world leaders also highlighted the plight of the estimated 2,200 political prisoners still held in squalid jails.
Expectation mounted during the day in Rangoon that the release was imminent. When police finally pulled back the barbed wire barricades blocking access to her street at about 5pm local time, the crowd gave a round of applause before swarming through the breach.
"Our mother is free, our mother is free!" some shouted, as they broke into a run across the final hundred yards to the gates of her leafy compound. For others, the emotion of the moment prompted tears.
By the time Ms Suu Kyi finally emerged as dusk fell, the crowd had swelled into thousands, with supporters sweeping past truckloads of police commandos armed with automatic rifles. The men in uniform made no attempt to stop them, though plainclothes police were seen photographing the faces of those brave enough to attend.
Standing on a chair behind the gates of her home, the same platform from which she spoke to followers during her previous spells of freedom, Ms Suu Kyi looked happy and relaxed, waving to the crowd.
"I'm glad that you are welcoming me and supporting me," she added, dressed in a silk lilac top and traditional purple wraparound longyi. "I want to say that there will be a time to come out. Do not stay quiet when that time comes."
When a well-wisher presented her with a bouquet, she drew a few flowers from it and put them in her hair, reproducing a hallmark look that has endeared her to supporters around the world
While she had few words for those who had waited so long, they gave no indication that her resolve had weakened during her long seclusion. "If you want to practise politics, please show discipline," she said.
Her supporters turned the previously cordoned-off street into a mini-carnival, halting traffic to make space for souvenir group photos and bellowing "Victory!" into the night.
"I came here because I like Auntie Suu very much and I wanted to give these to her," said one young woman clutching a bunch of roses. "I hope that she will be able to do more for us than this government."
Ms Suu Kyi, 65, was convicted last year of violating the terms of her previous detention after allowing an American man who swam across the stretch of water next to her house to stay with her for two nights. The visitor, John Yettaw, turned up uninvited, and his host gave him refuge mainly out of concern for his safety, but the junta interpreted her actions uncharitably. As a result, they extended a period of house arrest that had begun in 2003, after her motorcade was violently ambushed by a government-backed mob as she drew huge crowds on a trip around northern Burma.
Ms Suu Kyi took up the democracy struggle in 1988 when she returned to Burma from Oxford University, where she was married a British academic, to look after her ailing mother at a time of political turmoil in her homeland.
The daughter of assassinated independence hero Aung San, she was swept into the movement's leadership as massive crowds took to the streets calling for reform. The army responded by brutally crushing the protests, massacring thousands, and placed Ms Suu Kyi under house arrest for the first time.
After last week's carefully-choreographed elections, the regime has clearly calculated that it can take the risk of releasing her for what is now a third time. Backed by their Chinese patrons, the generals have long plundered the country's rich resources of timber and gems and taken a share of the lucrative drugs trade to fund their bankrupt regime.
But the junta is now seeking international legitimacy and an easing of sanctions after the sham vote was won by an army-backed party as part of a manoeuvre to entrench military rule beneath a veneer of democracy.
During the last two decades, Ms Suu Kyi has paid a huge personal cost. Her husband Michael Aris died of cancer in 1999 after being repeatedly refused a visa to visit his wife, the couple's two sons grew into adults thousands of miles from their mother and she has grandchildren she has never seen.