Sunday, November 14, 2010

Burmese Dissident Is Freed After Long Detention


The New York Times

November 13, 2010

Burmese Dissident Is Freed After Long Detention


YANGON, Myanmar — 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 to the gate of the lakeside compound where she had been confined, she was greeted by thousands of jubilant supporters, some of them in tears.

Waving and beaming in a long-sleeve pink shirt and a purple sarong, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate could barely be heard over the cheering and chanting.

“We haven’t seen each other for so long, I have so much to tell you,” she said, immediately re-establishing the bond that has made her such a challenge to the nation’s military rulers. It had been more than seven years since her last arrest, a period of near total separation from the world.

Her release, just five days after an election that recast the government with a civilian face, suggested that the generals were confident of their position and ready to face down the devotion she still commands both in her country and abroad.

Indeed, Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi, 65, faced an immediate challenge of mending fences within the democratic opposition, which fractured over the question of participating in the election. But the election, which drew accusations of fraud from almost all opposition parties, has also opened a new area of discontent that her lawyers said she planned to exploit.

The scene at the gates of her compound suggested that her popularity remained strong. When the police removed barricades from around her villa on Saturday afternoon, crowds flooded into the street.

Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi spoke only briefly, saying, “If we are united, we can get what we want.” The crowd then broke into the singing of the national anthem.

“She is our mother, she is our mother!” a woman cried.

After someone handed her a flower, the crowd pleaded, “Put it in your hair!”

She obliged.

It was the kind of outpouring she had experienced twice before on earlier releases from house arrest, in 1995 and 2002. Both times she was detained again after testing the limits of her freedom.

On Sunday, wearing a white garland, she addressed a cheering crowd of thousands of people in front of her party’s headquarters. The remarks began with a call for freedom of speech, which she said was the “basis of democratic freedom,” according to news services.

A government broadcast Saturday said Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi had been freed without conditions. There appeared to be no other government statement on Saturday regarding her release.

But one of her lawyers, U Kyi Win, said that even if no formal conditions were placed on her freedom, her movements could still be restricted, as they had been at times after her previous releases.

Her most recent detention began in 2003 after she had drawn increasingly large and enthusiastic crowds as she toured the country. A band of organized thugs attacked her convoy in what some people believe was an assassination attempt, and she was sent first to prison and then back to house arrest.

The immediate response from Western capitals to her release was one of celebration. Her freedom has been their first demand in calling for political freedoms and respect for human rights in the nation also known as Burma.

“She is a hero of mine,” President Obama said, “and a source of inspiration for all who work to advance basic human rights in Burma and around the world.”

But Western leaders also made it clear that they would continue to assess the actions of the ruling generals before they considered moderating a policy of isolation and economic sanctions against them.

Saying France was paying close attention, President Nicolas Sarkozy said in a statement. “Any obstacle to her freedom of movement or expression would constitute a new and unacceptable denial of her rights.”

And the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, said he expected “no further restrictions will be placed on her” and he urged the junta “to build on today’s action by releasing all remaining political prisoners.”

The daughter of the nation’s founding hero, U Aung San, who was assassinated when she was 2 years old, she has embraced her fate of isolation and self-sacrifice. When her British husband, Michael Aris, was dying of cancer in 1999, she refused to leave to visit him for fear that she would not be allowed to return to her country.

As Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi resumes her struggle for democratic freedoms, several analysts said, she will be re-entering a battleground more complicated and difficult than the one she had faced in the past.

“It’s certainly not going to be easy for her,” said Thant Myint-U, a historian and former United Nations official who has written widely on the country. “This is a very, very different political landscape than when she was released the last time. The country is facing a whole slew of new challenges and opportunities.”

Her party, the National League for Democracy, won the previous election, in 1990, but the generals annulled the result and clung to power. The victory gave Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi the standing to speak as the nation’s disenfranchised leader. But that result has now been superseded by the new election, which the main military-backed party won overwhelmingly.

The National League declined to take part in the election, calling it unfair and undemocratic, and was required to formally disband. But Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi was assailed for that decision by party members who saw the vote, however flawed, as an opening.

A faction of those critics broke away, creating a new party and a challenge to her leadership. National League leaders said the party would remain the platform for her activities, but it is no longer the only center for opposition or independent action.

Though the newly elected Parliament is seen mainly as a mechanism for the military to try to legitimize its control — in what more than one analyst characterized as a charade, several generals resigned from the military so they could take the top jobs in the new civilian government — it nevertheless changes the political dynamic with new structures and new personalities.

There will be new opposition parties, however small and weak; new political officeholders, however limited their scope for independent action; and the first generation of military leaders who have not been schooled at all in the West and who perceive the United States as their biggest strategic threat.

A new world of charity and aid groups has also emerged during the past seven years of her house arrest, leading to a more diffuse public arena.

“In many ways Myanmar is not the isolated, closed-off country that it was 10 or 20 years ago,” Mr. Thant Myint-U said. “It’s a very complex place. I think we could say for sure that this year, these couple of years, are without a doubt the country’s most important watershed in a generation.”

Billions of dollars in investment have been pouring in from China and other Asian nations, and although the people of Myanmar still struggle in abject poverty, the ruling class is better off than ever and the junta more self-confident.

Given these complexities, Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi’s new freedom may be a burden as much as it is a liberation.

“She’ll be facing a mountain of expectation and challenges,” said Aung Zaw, editor of The Irrawaddy, a Thailand-based exile magazine.

“She is just a private citizen, but a lot of people still believe that she is the leader of the democratic movement, not just a leader of the N.L.D.,” he said. “People want her to expand her leadership.”

Those expectations were on display in the crowd outside her house on Saturday.

“I’m happier than if I won the lottery,” one older woman exulted. “But this is just the beginning, not the end. The political prisoners are still in jail. Everyone needs to be released!”

Seth Mydans contributed reporting from Bangkok, and Liz Robbins from New York.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: November 13, 2010

An earlier version of this article misstated part of the name of a lawyer who said that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's movements could be restricted even if no formal conditions were placed on her freedom. The lawyer's name is U Kyi Win, not U Kyi Maung.

Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company


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