Myanmar’s democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi walked free on Saturday after seven years as a prisoner in her own home, calling on a sea of jubilant supporters to unite in the face of repression.
Waving and smiling, the Nobel Peace Prize winner appeared outside the crumbling lakeside mansion where she had been locked up by the military rulers, to huge cheers and clapping from the waiting crowds.
“We must work together in unison,” she told thousands of waiting people, suggesting she has no intention of giving up her long fight for democracy in what is one of the world’s oldest dictatorships.
Many people hugged each other with joy at the sight of the 65-year-old dissident, known in Myanmar simply as “The Lady”.
She wore a pale purple traditional jacket and appeared in good health. “I’m so glad to see her in person,” said one supporter, Htein Win. “The last time I saw her was in 2002.”
Suu Kyi asked the crowd to come to her party’s headquarters on Sunday to hear her speak after she struggled to make herself heard over the roar of cheers, then went back inside her home as the crowds lingered outside.
Myanmar’s most famous dissident has been under house arrest since 2003 — just one of several stretches of detention at the hands of the ruling generals since 1989.
A senior government official said Suu Kyi’s release is “completely free” with no conditions.
Suu Kyi is still seen by many as the biggest threat to the junta after almost five decades of military dictatorship. She has been locked up for 15 of the past 21 years.
Suu Kyi's detention was extended last year over a bizarre incident in which an American swam uninvited to her lakeside home, keeping her off the scene for the first election in 20 years.
"If she is released very late, I cannot say what we can prepare for the people," said Suu Kyi's lawyer Nyan Win, who is also the NLD's long-time spokesman.
The daughter of Myanmar's independence hero General Aung San swept her party to victory in elections two decades ago, but it was never allowed to take power.
When the softly-spoken but indomitable opposition leader was last released in 2002 she drew huge crowds wherever she went -- a reminder that years of detention had not dimmed her immense popularity.
Suu Kyi's freedom is seen by observers as an effort by the regime to tame international condemnation of Sunday's election, the first since the 1990 vote.
Western nations and pro-democracy activists have criticised the poll as anything but free and fair following widespread reports of intimidation and fraud.
The NLD's decision not to participate in the election deeply split Myanmar's opposition and Suu Kyi's party has been disbanded, leaving her future role uncertain.
Partial election results show that the army-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) has already won a majority of the parliamentary seats available.