When the barbwire and barricades finally came down after seven-and-a-half years, Burmese police officers quietly moved out of the way to a surge of running, screaming supporters shouting just one name: Aung San Suu Kyi.
Many had waited since Friday morning for the Nobel Peace Prize winner's expected release. When she was eventually freed at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday the crowd outside her home had swelled to about 1,000 people following a tense afternoon. Authorities had called in an additional 40 armed guards after the crowd earlier edged closer to the barricades that surrounded the compound where the symbol of opposition to Burma's military junta was under house arrest. The official move prompted jeers from her supporters and a sit-down protest by more than 30 members of Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party. By then, "The Lady's" loyalists were out in force.
Diehard NLD supporter Tun Aung Khaing was one of the first party members to arrive mid-afternoon on Friday riding a rickety old bicycle fitted with an image of his hero above the front tire, a move rarely seen in a country where similar actions have often resulted in arrest. "Everybody is afraid of being here but everyone needs to be courageous," he said on Saturday afternoon.
As they waited, NLD members were singing and shouting Suu Kyi slogans but none knew whether she would be released on the day her period of detention expired. The junta had extended the sentence before, sometimes violating its own draconian laws on detention without trial. But with Burma's first election in 20 years out of the way on Nov. 7, speculation mounted that the military regime would feel sufficiently confident to release its arch-enemy following a landslide victory for the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party.
On Saturday the election result was not even a topic of discussion among supporters of the "The Lady." After NLD supporters chanted sporadic chants of "Aung San Suu Kyi, the government will release her soon" the wait was nearly over. First police took down barricades on one end of the street and finally removed those on the side separating the crowd prompting a rush to the finish line Suu Kyi's front gate. It was a scene of open support for Burma's most famous dissident not seen in the military-controlled country for years.
When she eventually climbed up to poke her head over the fence to greet the crowd, the NLD leader smiled and looked ever so slightly embarrassed by all the attention. One member of the crowd soon handed Suu Kyi a bunch of red and white flowers that she arranged in her trademark style, tied below a bunch in her jet-black hair.
Suu Kyi's words when they eventually came were greeted by a booming applause down Rangoon's University Avenue Road, an area of the city that has remained a "restricted zone" for more than seven years. "I'm very happy to see you all again," the 65-year old said in a voice barely audible against the surrounding noise. She was in good health, she said, without offering much on her next political move. "People must work in unison. Only then can we achieve our goal."
In 2009, the regime used a bizarre incident to extend her house arrest. Virtually on the eve of what was then her expected release, an American named John Yettaw, who had once tried to see the dissident leader but had been turned away, swam across a Rangoon lake to reach Suu Kyi's home. His intrusion, the regime declared, violated the rules of her house arrest and she was sentenced to an additional 18-months. In August 2010, the regime scheduled its elections to be held the week before she would be set free. In the meantime, opposition groups, which once mostly coalesced around her, had splintered. In 1990, when the junta allowed free elections, the NLD even with the Lady forbidden from campaigning won an astounding 72% of the popular vote and nearly 400 of the 485 seats in the National Assembly. The regime, however, ignored the results and cracked down hard.
Suu Kyi has endured much under arrest. Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, she was prevented from attending the ceremony. Her sons accepted in her stead. Her husband, Michael Aris, died of cancer in his native Britain in 1999 and she was unable to be with him. But her slim, slight figure has haunted the regime ever since she returned to the country in 1988, after some 30 years in Britain, to tend to her terminally ill mother. Her presence at opposition rallies, her courage in the face of the regime's repression, the stories of her lonely hunger strike during incarceration and the admiring tales of her ambition to carry on the work of her father, the national hero Aung San, the founder of the Burmese army all turned her into a mesmerizing political force. Her face and image became such a talisman of dissent that it was virtually forbidden by the junta.
But now that she is once again free, will she be able to exercise her old powers and bring the opposition under her wing? Or has the junta managed to co-opt democracy with its version of electoral politics? And the question in the background: if the people once again flock to her, will the junta allow her to remain free?