Myanmar’s democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest Saturday, an official said, as crowds of excited supporters waited outside her home for a glimpse of their idol.
The crowd cheered and began to surge fowards as police began removing barricades around her crumbling mansion where she has been locked up by the military junta for most of the past two decades.
The authorities went inside to read the order to release her from house arrest, a government official said.
“She is released now,” said the official, who did not want to be named.
More than 1,000 people were gathered outside in hope of seeing the 65-year-old dissident, known to her supporters simply as “The Lady”.
Although she has been sidelined and silenced by the junta — occasionally released briefly only to be put back in confinement — for many in the impoverished nation she still embodies hope of a better future.
“I think of her as my mother and also my sister and grandmother because she’s the daughter of our independence leader General Aung San,” said 45-year-old Naing Naing Win. “She has her father’s blood.”
Despite the risks of opposing the military regime in a country with more than 2,200 political prisoners, many supporters wore T-shirts bearing her image and the words: “We stand with Aung San Suu Kyi.”
Undercover police were photographing and filming the crowds.
Myanmar’s most famous dissident has been under house arrest since 2003 — just one of several stretches of detention at the hands of the ruling generals.
Her sentence was extended last year over a bizarre incident in which an American swam uninvited to her lakeside home, sparking international condemnation and keeping her off the scene for the first election in 20 years.
The democracy icon swept her party to victory in elections two decades ago, but it was never allowed to take power.
When last released in 2002 she drew huge crowds wherever she went — a reminder that years of detention had not dimmed her immense popularity.
Some fear that junta chief Than Shwe will continue to put restrictions on the freedom of his number one enemy.
But her lawyer Nyan Win has suggested she would refuse to accept any conditions on her release, as in the past when she tried in vain to leave Yangon in defiance of the regime’s orders.
Her struggle for her country has come at a high personal cost: her husband, British academic Michael Aris, died in 1999, and in the final stages of his battle with cancer the junta refused him a visa to see his wife.
She has not seen her two sons for about a decade and has never met her grandchildren.
Her youngest son Kim Aris, 33, arrived in Bangkok ahead of her release but it was unclear whether he would be allowed to visit his mother.
Suu Kyi’s freedom is seen by observers as an effort by the regime to tame international criticism of Sunday’s election, the first since the 1990 vote.
Western nations and pro-democracy activists have blasted the poll as anything but free and fair following widespread reports of intimidation and fraud.
Partial election results show that the military and its political proxies have secured a majority in parliament.
The NLD’s decision not to participate in the election deeply split Myanmar’s opposition and Suu Kyi’s party has been disbanded, leaving her future role uncertain.
Little is known about her plans although her lawyer says she has expressed a desire to join Twitter to reach out to the Internet generation.
Few expect her to give up her long struggle for freedom from repression and attention is now on whether she can reunite the splintered opposition and bring about the democratic change that has eluded Myanmar for so long.