Myanmar releases leader of democracy movement


BANGKOK, Thailand -- Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Prize winner and opposition leader in Myanmar, formerly Burma, was released yesterday from house arrest after nearly six years of confinement by the nation's military junta.

The release of Mrs. Suu Kyi, who won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize for her campaign to bring democracy to her homeland, came the day before her detention order expired.

Foreign diplomats in Yangon, the capital of Myanmar, said they had been assured by junta officials that the release of the 50-year-old opposition leader was unconditional, and that she was free to come and go as she pleased.

In the past, the junta had offered to release Mrs. Suu Kyi, the Oxford-educated daughter of the hero of the nation's independence struggle, but only if she would agree to leave the country and not return for several years.

She refused, insisting that while other issues might be negotiable, she would never agree to leave.

Although she remained last night inside the lakeside house in Yangon, formerly Rangoon, that served so long as her prison, she began almost immediately to receive visitors, including two prominent people aligned with her political party, the National League for Democracy.

U Tin Oo and U Kyi Maung, who were released from prison in March, said nothing of substance to reporters as they left the house.

Mrs. Suu Kyi's release could well mean an easing of Myanmar's status with foreign governments and international lending organizations, including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The United States and other foreign governments had demanded her freedom as a condition for the lifting of diplomatic and trade sanctions.

It is not clear if her release indicates a significant softening of the position of the military, which since her confinement has crushed virtually all dissent in a nation of 45 million. While the military has managed to destroy her political apparatus inside the country, the release of Mrs. Suu Kyi carries a clear risk to the junta.

During her long detention, she managed to retain the loyalty of millions of Burmese who, because it is dangerous to say her name out loud, refer to her in reverential whispers simply as "the Lady."

Mrs. Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest on July 20, 1989, on vague allegations of inciting unrest but was never formally charged with a crime.

Her political party won a huge victory in national elections in 1990, an outcome nullified by the military in a crackdown on the democracy movement that left thousands of her supporters dead.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns expressed the hope that the release marked a turning point in Burma's recent history of repression:

"If her release enables her to participate freely in a genuine process of reconciliation that leads to a democratically elected government, this would also mark a milestone towards the restoration of peace and stability in Burma. While we welcome this step, we remain concerned about the general human rights situation in Burma."

Amnesty International, the human rights group that helped to organize the international campaign seeking her freedom, said in London that "we hope this decision marks the beginning of a new policy to fundamentally improve Myanmar's human rights record."

Another diplomat said that while he welcomed the release, he worried that the junta would simply find new ways of restricting Mrs. Suu Kyi's freedom, perhaps by arresting anyone who met with her. "It could become just a different sort of confinement for her," he said.

Diplomats in Yangon said Mrs. Suu Kyi had been told of her release during an afternoon visit to her home yesterday by Col. Kyaw Win, the junta's deputy intelligence chief.

Mrs. Suu Kyi's husband, Michael Aris, a Tibet scholar at Oxford University, and their two sons continue to live in Britain. They were allowed to visit her periodically over the past three years, but earlier this year the junta alarmed the family when it rejected a visa request from Mr. Aris without any explanation.

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