YANGON, Myanmar - Pro-democracy hero Aung San Suu Kyi walked free yesterday 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, 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, Suu Kyi, 65, 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 Nobel Peace Prize laureate said to laughter, smiling deeply as she held the metal spikes that top the gate.
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, 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 her release 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 during her 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. Other international leaders 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.
Jared Genser, president of Freedom Now and Suu Kyi's international counsel, also sounded a note of caution.
"The good news is that she can now speak on her behalf," Genser said in Washington, D.C. "But I would caution people in the international community being overly optimistic about the future of the country just yet because we should recall that she's been released three times previously . . . and nothing fundamentally changed."
Her supporters had begun to gather near the house starting Friday. "She's our country's hero," Tin Tin Yu, 20, a university student, said yesterday,. "Our election was a sham. Everyone knows it, but they have guns so what can we do? She's the only one who can make our country a democracy."
Myanmar's last elections in 1990 were won overwhelmingly by her National League for Democracy, but the military refused to hand over power and clamped down on opponents.