Junta silent as Myanmar awaits Suu Kyi release

Hundreds of supporters of Nobel peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi gathered outside her home and party headquarters on Saturday, chanting for her freedom after seven years of detention by Myanmar's military junta.

world Updated: Nov 13, 2010 16:39 IST

Hundreds of supporters of Nobel peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi gathered outside her home and party headquarters on Saturday, chanting for her freedom after seven years of detention by Myanmar's military junta.

There was still no sign the Southeast Asian country's rulers would free the pro-democracy leader to revive her fight against dictatorship in one of the world's most reclusive, oppressive nations, despite rumours an order to release had been signed.

A crowd of about 600 people, among them many journalists, waited anxiously near her house, ocassionally chanting "Release Aung San Suu Kyi" and "Long live Aung San Suu Kyi". Some wore T-shirts with a message pledging to stand with her.

A government source told Reuters she would likely be released late in the day, but in secretive Myanmar, the comment could not be officially confirmed.

"Her house arrest expires today, so we think she will be released today," Nyan Win, a lawyer for Suu Kyi, told Reuters. Once freed, he said, Suu Kyi would meet her party's leaders before deciding her next move.

Analysts said it was likely only paramount leader Senior General Than Shwe and his closest allies knew the next steps for Suu Kyi, who has spent 15 of the past 21 years locked up because of her opposition to 48 years of military rule in the former Burma.

With the Nov. 7 election, the first in 20 years, out of the way and won by a army-backed party, the generals could seek some international legitimacy by freeing Suu Kyi, daughter of the slain hero of Myanmar's campaign for independence from Britain.

Such a move would be the first step towards a review of Western sanctions on the resource-rich country, labelled by rights groups as one of the world's most corrupt and oppressive.

Breathing Space

Freeing the charismatic 65-year-old leader could also divert some attention from an election widely dismissed as a sham to cement military power under a facade of democracy.

"The regime needs to create some breathing space urgently," said a retired Burmese academic, who asked not to be identified.

"They may do that by releasing her and might think it will help improve an image tarnished by electoral fraud."

Pessimists question whether the generals really care about their image when they are assured of diplomatic and economic support from their neighbours, in particular China.

Releasing Suu Kyi, who has backed moves to isolate the regime, carries risks for the military, which seeks legitimacy for the election and for a new government that will be set up.

Suu Kyi is still believed to have the same mesmerising influence over the public that helped her National League for Democracy win the last election in 1990 in a landslide, a result the military ignored.

She could draw big crowds to the gates of her home in Yangon and with a few words could rob the election of any shred of legitimacy it might have, possibly seeking to have the results annulled on grounds of fraud.

Many experts say the sanctions also benefit the junta, allowing generals and their cronies to dominate industry in the country of 50 million, rich in natural gas, timber and minerals with a strategic port in the Bay of Bengal

Trade with the West has been replaced by strengthening ties with China, Thailand and Singapore, whose objections to the regime's human rights record are relatively muted.

"There are a lot of people with a lot at stake in maintaining the status quo," said Sean Turnell, an expert on Myanmar's economy at Sydney's Macquarie University.

It would not be difficult for the generals to find a reason to extend her detention beyond Saturday, when a sentence imposed last year for the violation of a security law is due to end.

Her NLD party has been officially disbanded by the government after deciding not to contest the election. Her opposition to the poll could provide a pretext to detain her further.

They could also impose restrictions on her freedom that she would not accept.

Suu Kyi was just a few weeks away from being released last year when an unexpected visit by an American intruder, John Yettaw, robbed her of her freedom.

She was found guilty of harbouring Yettaw for two days, which breached a 1970s law protecting the state against "subversive elements", a verdict critics said was intended to sideline her from the election.

First Published: Nov 13, 2010 14:30 IST