BANGKOK // Myanmar's military authorities yesterday freed pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who appeared briefly in front of thousands of enthusiastic supporters who surged toward her lakeside residence as the barricades in front of her Yangon house were removed.
The 65-year-old Nobel Peace Prize winner, who has been detained for most of the past 21 years, has come to symbolise the struggle for democracy in the nation ruled by the military since 1962.
Standing on a platform at the gate of her compound, wearing a traditional lilac dress, as she used in 1995 when she was first released from house arrest, Ms Suu Kyi was greeted by an ecstatic crowd that chanted, cheered and sang the national anthem.
"We must work together in unison to achieve our goal," she said, promising them she would speak to them today from her National League for Democracy party headquarters.
Nyan Win, her lawyer and the party's spokesman, said Ms Suu Kyi had been released unconditionally from her latest detainment of 7 1/2 years.
Supporters had been gathering outside her gate and near the party's headquarters since early yesterday morning in anticipation of her release. Many of them were wearing T-shirts sporting the slogans "We stand with Aung San Suu Kyi" - itself a crime punishable by three years prison.
"Now she is finally free we can have real democracy," said Maung Maung, a former teacher who had been waiting near her residence since Friday. "We must have new elections so that the people can tell generals what they really think."
Her release comes just one week after the junta held the country's first elections in 20 years, in which the National League for Democracy party refused to participate because it did not consider the elections free or fair. The pro-military party is reported to have won more than 80 per cent of the seats, according to the state-run media, but most of the opposition parties that did field candidates have lodged complaints that the polls were rigged.
The country's last elections, in 1990, were won overwhelmingly by the National League for Democracy, but the military refused to hand over power and instead clamped down on opponents.
"She is the symbol of the hope for the people of Burma. Now she is out, the whole country will rise up and follow her," said Zinn Lin, a spokesman for the pro-democracy movement and a former political prisoner. "The junta can cow everyone but Aung San Suu Kyi," said a US-based Myanmar academic, Win Min.
The first thing Ms Suu Kyi wants to do is open a Twitter account so that she can communicate with the young people of the country, said Win Tin, the party's senior spokesman and former political prisoner.
The release of one of the most prominent political prisoners was welcomed by world leaders and human rights organisations.
The US president, Barack Obama, called Ms Suu Kyi "a hero of mine" and said the United States "welcomes her long overdue release".
"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," Mr Obama said in a statement.
The British prime minister, David Cameron, also said the release was long overdue.
"Aung San Suu Kyi is an inspiration for all of us who believe in freedom of speech, democracy and human rights," he said in a statement.
"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," European Commissioner Jose Manuel Barroso said.
Ms Suu Kyi's release gives the junta some ammunition against critics of the election and the government's human-rights record, which includes the continued detention of about 2,200 political prisoners and brutal military campaigns against ethnic minorities.
But it's unlikely the ruling generals will allow Ms 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, formerly known as Burma.
Myanmar's military leader, the senior General Than Shwe, cannot even abide hearing her name. "The mere mention of her name sends the old man into a silent rage," according to a senior military source close to the top general.
* With additional reporting by Associated Press