YANGON, Myanmar – Pro-democracy hero Aung San Suu Kyi walked free after more than seven years under house arrest, welcomed by thousands of cheering supporters outside the decaying lakefront villa that has been her prison.
Her guards effectively announced the end of her detention Saturday, pulling back the barbed-wire barriers that sealed off her potholed street and suddenly allowing thousands of expectant supporters to surge toward the house. Many chanted her name as they ran. Some wept.
A few minutes later, with the soldiers and police having evaporated into the Yangon twilight, she climbed atop a stepladder behind the gate as the crowd began singing the national anthem.
“I haven’t seen you for a long time,” the 65-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate said to laughter, smiling deeply as she held the metal spikes that top the gate. When a supporter handed up a bouquet, she pulled out a flower and wove it into her hair.
Speaking briefly in Burmese, she told the crowd, which quickly swelled to as many as 5,000 people: “If we work in unity, we will achieve our goal.”
“We have a lot of things to do,” said Suu Kyi, the 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 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.
Other international leaders also welcomed the end to her detention.
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.
U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed his “deep admiration and heartfelt best wishes” to Suu Kyi.
“Her dignity and courage in the face of injustice have been an inspiration to many people around the world.”