Burma’s military junta on Saturday released pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest to cheers from overjoyed supporters and cautious optimism from the international community.
Early on Saturday, Mrs. Suu Kyi’s supporters, diplomats, reporters and members of her National League for Democracy (NLD) party gathered outside her home in Rangoon as rumors swirled that the junta had sanctioned her release.
An NLD official told The Washington Times that the crowds swelled as the first barricade was removed from in front of Mrs. Suu Kyi’s residence.
“If we work in unity, we will achieve our goal. We have a lot of things to do,” Mrs. Suu Kyi, 65, told the crowd in Burmese upon her release, according to the Associated Press.
She told her supporters they would see her again at the NLD headquarters on Sunday.
Mrs. Suu Kyi will hold a press conference at noon in Rangoon on Sunday.
President Obama described Mrs. Suu Kyi as “a hero of mine and a source of inspiration for all who work to advance basic human rights in Burma and around the world.”
“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,” Mr. Obama said.
“It is time for the Burmese regime to release all political prisoners, not just one. The United States looks forward to the day when all of Burma’s people are free from fear and persecution,” he added.
According to human rights groups, there are more than 2,100 political prisoners in Burma.
British Prime Minister David Cameron described Mrs. Suu Kyi’s detention as a “travesty” and welcomed her release as “long overdue.”
“Freedom is Aung San Suu Kyi’s right. The Burmese regime must now uphold it,” Mr. Cameron said.
Mrs. Suu Kyi’s release comes one week after Burma held its first elections in 20 years. Critics say the vote was rigged in favor of the military-backed parties. The NLD won the last election by a majority but was not allowed to govern and its leaders were detained by the military.
A spokesman for United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said it is “deeply regrettable” that Mrs. Suu Kyi was effectively excluded from participating in the Nov. 7 elections.
The NLD was dissolved ahead of the elections, and Mrs. Suu Kyi was barred for participating in the contest.
Mrs. Suu Kyi met with NLD leaders soon after her release and according to sources is expected to criticize the elections as a sham when she speaks to supporters on Sunday.
“The Secretary-General expects that no further restrictions will be placed on her, and he urges the [Burmese] authorities to build on today’s action by releasing all remaining political prisoners,” Mr. Ban’s spokesman said.
Mrs. Suu Kyi has been in prison or under house arrest for 15 of the past 20 years. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.
After her husband, Michael Aris, died in Britain in 1999, Mrs. Suu Kyi declined an offer from the junta to travel to Britain for his funeral, fearing she would not be allowed back if she left.
She was initially freed in 1995, but was not allowed to travel outside Rangoon.
The latest series of detentions began in May 2003. On Aug. 11, 2009, three months after she was due to be freed from her house arrest of six years, she was sentenced to 18 additional months of house arrest. Justifying the detention, the junta said Mrs. Suu Kyi had violated the terms of her house arrest when American John Yettaw swam to her property uninvited.
Jared Genser, Mrs. Suu Kyi’s international counsel and president of Freedom Now, said her release “alone is virtually meaningless until the junta enters into an irreversible process of dialogue resulting in national reconciliation between the junta, the National League for Democracy, and ethnic groups and a restoration of democracy to Burma.”
“For anyone who might mistakenly view this release as a sign of change, the international community should recall that Ms. Suu Kyi was released from house arrest three times previously — in the mid-1990s and early 2000s — and nothing fundamentally changed in the
country,” Mr. Genser said.
Aung Din, executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma, said with Mrs. Suu Kyi’s release her safety and possible re-arrest become major concerns.
Aung Din, who participated in the 1988 popular democracy uprising in Burma and currently lives in Washington, said he had been informed by various sources in Burma that the military has recruited criminals with a plan to attack Mrs. Suu Kyi if she continues to challenge the regime and its implementation of the results of the Nov. 7 elections. The international community had criticized that vote as a sham.
Mrs. Suu Kyi previously survived an assassination attempt by the regime’s militias on May 30, 2003, near Depayin Township in Middle Burma. Scores of her party members were killed in that attack.
Mrs. Suu Kyi’s release was also greeted with guarded optimism from congressional leaders on both sides of the political aisle.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky welcomed the development as the first positive news to come out of Burma in some time.
“That said, she has been released in the past only to be later detained on trumped-up charges. Whether the regime will tolerate her active participation in public discourse in Burma is the key question. Even if it turns out she is given freedom of movement and speech, her release should be viewed as a first step in Burmese reform and not the last,” Mr. McConnell said.
Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, said the joy of Mrs. Suu Kyi’s release is “tempered by the continuing hardships confronting the people for whom she has sacrificed so much.”
Mr. Kerry, who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he looked to the Burmese government to release all political prisoners and allow Mrs. Suu Kyi and other democracy advocates to speak freely and move about the country.
“In the coming weeks and months, the world will watch closely to see whether Burma’s new leaders begin the journey toward genuine democracy, peace and respect for fundamental human rights, or whether they remain mired in the failed policies of the past,” Mr. Kerry said, adding, “A shift toward more inclusive, responsive, and democratic governance will allow the long-suffering people of Burma to better their lives, and, over time, will create opportunities for the government of Burma to improve relations with the United States and begin to repair its much-tarnished international reputation.”