Yangon: — Myanmar's democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, freed from seven years of house arrest, told thousands of wildly cheering supporters Sunday that she would continue to fight for human rights and the rule of law in the military-ruled nation. She spoke to about 5,000 people who crowded around the dilapidated headquarters of her political party, the first stop for the Nobel Peace Prize laureate after leaving the lakeside residence that had been her prison.
"I believe in human rights and I believe in the rule of law. I will always fight for these things," she said. "I want to work with all democratic forces and I need the support of the people." Suu Kyi earlier slipped into the small compound of her National League for Democracy as people shouted "We love Suu" amid thunderous applause.
Inside, she met with Yangon-based diplomats and was later scheduled to talk with the media, attend the funeral of a close friend and pay a customary visit to the city's sacred Shwedagon pagoda. "This is an unconditional release. No restrictions are placed on her," her lawyer Nyan Win said. There was speculation whether she would use her newfound freedom to challenge the ruling military head-on, or be more conciliatory.
In her Sunday speech, she did not sound a strident note, speaking about working toward national reconciliation and saying she bore no grudge against those who had held her in detention for more than 15 of the last 21 years. She thanked her well-wishers and asked them to pray for those still imprisoned by the regime. Human rights groups say the junta hold more than 2,200 political prisoners.
In her first public appearance Saturday evening, Suu Kyi indicated she would continue with her political activity but did not specify whether she would challenge the military with mass rallies and other activities that led to her earlier detentions. "We have a lot of things to do," said Suu Kyi, the 65-year-old charismatic and relentlessly outspoken woman who has come to symbolize the struggle for democracy in the isolated and secretive nation once known as Burma. The country has been ruled by the military since 1962.
But while her release thrilled her supporters -- and also clearly thrilled her -- it came just days after an election that was swept by the ruling junta's proxy political party and decried by Western nations as a sham designed to perpetuate authoritarian control. Many observers have questioned whether it was timed by the junta to distract the world's attention from the election. It is also unlikely that the ruling generals will allow Suu Kyi, who drew huge crowds of supporters during her few periods of freedom, to actively and publicly pursue her goal of bringing democracy to Myanmar.
While welcoming the release, European Commissioner Jose Manuel Barroso urged that no restrictions be placed on her. "It is now crucial that Aung San Suu Kyi has unrestricted freedom of movement and speech and can participate fully in her country's political process," he said.
President Barack Obama called Suu Kyi "a hero of mine." "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," he said in a statement.
Others in Myanmar hailed Suu Kyi as the only one who might unite the poor, isolated country. "She's our country's hero," said Tin Tin Yu, a 20-year-old university student, standing near the house later Saturday night. "Our election was a sham. Everyone knows it, but they have guns so what can we do? She's the only one who can make our country a democracy."
Critics say the Nov 7 elections were manipulated to give the pro-military party a sweeping victory. The new government is unlikely to win the international legitimacy that it craves simply by releasing Suu Kyi because the recent elections were so obviously skewed, according Trevor Wilson, former Australian ambassador to Myanmar. What happens next will depend on what kind of restrictions the regime puts on Suu Kyi -- and what she says if she is allowed to speak, said Wilson. "We will have to wait and see. It could be a little bit of a cat-and-mouse game," Wilson said.
Suu Kyi has said she would help probe allegations of voting fraud, according to Nyan Win, who is a spokesman for her party, which was officially disbanded for refusing to register for the polls. Such actions have provoked military crackdowns in the past. Myanmar's last elections in 1990 were won overwhelmingly by her National League for Democracy, but the military refused to hand over power and instead clamped down on opponents.
Suu Kyi was convicted last year of violating the terms of her previous detention by briefly sheltering an American man who swam uninvited to her lakeside home, extending a period of continuous detention that began in 2003 after her motorcade was ambushed in northern Myanmar by a government-backed mob.
Suu Kyi took up the democracy struggle in 1988, as mass demonstrations were breaking out against 25 years of military rule. She was quickly thrust into a leadership role, mainly because she was the daughter of Aung San, who led Myanmar to independence from Britain before his assassination by political rivals.
She rode out the military's bloody suppression of street demonstrations to help found the NLD. Her defiance gained her fame and honour, most notably the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize. In 1989, she was detained on national security charges and put under house arrest. Out of the last 21 years, she has been jailed or under house arrest for more than 15.
Suu Kyi's freedom had been a key demand of Western nations and groups critical of the military regime's poor human rights record, which includes the continued detention of some 2,200 political prisoners and brutal military campaigns against ethnic minorities. The military government, seeking to burnish its international image, had responded previously by offering to talk with her, only to later shy away from serious negotiations.