For Burma’s ‘black magic’ generals, known for consulting astrologers over every major move, November 13 must have seemed an auspicious enough day to release arch foe and democracy icon Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
Her gently decomposing mansion on Inya Lake in north Rangoon has been barricaded with its celebrity prisoner inside for the past seven years. Altogether, Suu Kyi has spent 15 of the past 21 years under house arrest here. But on Saturday, crowds started to build outside the army barricades on University Avenue. By late afternoon, the crowd of hard-core supporters—many bravely wearing t-shirts emblazoned with her image—began chanting her name and drawing closer to the barricades.
The soldiers began to get nervous. Reinforcements arrived in the form of helmeted riot police, armed with tear gas and stun grenades, who threatened to disperse the crowd unless it moved back. Army cameramen and ‘MI’ operatives filmed everyone, particularly the dozen or so journalists who had broken cover to report on events. At that point, no-one knew if ‘the lady’ would be released or if the country faced another, bloody, crackdown.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Then, at 5 pm, soldiers began removing the barricades to wild cheers from the crowd. A stampede began; hundreds of people began pouring through barbed wire openings along University Avenue and rushed past soldiers to assemble at the gate outside her home as the light faded.
When Suu Kyi appeared at the gate, her voice was drowned out by the exuberant crowd. An elderly woman standing next to me with tears rolling down her cheeks said, ‘Isn’t she beautiful? Now that she is free my happiness knows no limits.’
Addressing the crowd, Suu Kyi called for unity and determination, announcing a public rally for the following day. For hours, long after she’d retreated back to her home to consult with her NLD (National League for Democracy) colleagues, the people kept arriving.
And on Sunday, a huge crowd moved along roads past the Lucky 7 teashop towards the NLD headquarters in the sweltering heat. Although her party was banned from participating in the recent elections, the 10,000 people who showed up underscored the fact that the party is still very much alive for them.
‘I believe in human rights and I believe in the rule of law,’ Suu Kyi told the crowd, ‘I am for national reconciliation and for dialogue.’
She said there was much work to be done and called for a face-to-face meeting with junta leader General Than Shwe.
‘If my people aren’t free, how can I say that I am free?’