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Monday, 6 May, 2002, 13:42 GMT 14:42 UK
Burma frees opposition leader
Aung San Suu Kyi in the crowd
Pro-democracy supporters are celebrating
The Burmese pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has rallied her followers after the military government released her from nearly 20 months of house arrest.

Thousands of cheering supporters mobbed her as she arrived at the headquarters of her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), after being driven from her lakeside villa in Rangoon.

My release should not be looked at as a major breakthrough for democracy. For all people in Burma to enjoy basic freedom - that would be the major breakthrough

Aung San Suu Kyi
In her first public statement, the Nobel Peace Prize winner said her release was unconditional and she was free to go anywhere she wanted.

World leaders have welcomed the development.

United States Secretary of State Colin Powell said he was "very pleased that she has been released and allowed to participate in political life once again".

The European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, said he hoped Burma could now begin the process of reintegration into the international community.

The United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Annan, described the release as a "major development".

In a speech to jubilant supporters at the NLD headquarters, Aung San Suu Kyi said: "It's a new dawn for the country... we only hope the dawn will move very quickly.

"I hope to be able to carry out all my duties for my party and my country in the best possible way."

'Cautiously optimistic'

The BBC's Larry Jagan in Rangoon said Aung San Suu Kyi appeared hesitant at first, but "was soon back to her old self, quipping with journalists".

"She was really in her element in front of the journalists and talking to her reporters," he said.

Aung San Suu Kyi made it clear she regarded the military government's decision to free her as only the beginning of a political process.

"My release should not be looked at as a major breakthrough for democracy. For all people in Burma to enjoy basic freedom - that would be the major breakthrough," she said.

Asked when she believed democracy would come to her homeland, she replied: "I hope not in too many more years."

She said talks between the military government and the opposition had progressed to the stage where they could begin to tackle policy issues.

"The phase of confidence-building is over and we look forward to moving ahead," she said.

UN special envoy Razali Ismail
UN envoy Razali Ismail brokered the talks
She thanked the United Nations envoy, Razali Ismail, who had held talks with the military leadership during her confinement.

She added: "Most of the changes over the past 18 months have benefited the NLD, but it is not for the NLD but for the people of Burma that we are struggling for freedom.

"We have been disappointed at the slow pace of release of political prisoners. The releases are important."

One celebrating supporter, who did not want to be named, said: "I am very proud of her. She is our national heroine. Now Burma is very poor but when she rules our country I think it will become better."

Secret talks

Aung San Suu Kyi returned home after three hours of talks with party leaders and later went to pray at Rangoon's Shwedagon Pagoda, the most important Buddhist shrine in Burma.

Mr Razali, speaking in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, predicted that Burma would have an elected government "in a couple of years".

However, the BBC's South-East Asia correspondent, Jonathan Head, says the generals have yet to spell out any plans to share power with the opposition.

Aung San Suu Kyi
Aung San Suu Kyi's political life
  • 1988: Returns to Burma during political upheaval
  • 1990: Her party elected to power, result ignored by army
  • 1991: Awarded Nobel Peace Prize
  • 1995-2000: Release from house arrest
  • 2000: Begins secret talks with generals

      Click here for full profile

  • Aung San Suu Kyi won an overwhelming victory in Burma's last democratic elections in 1990, but was never allowed to take power.

    The junta said her release was "starting a new page" for the people of Burma.

    Burma has faced international isolation and economic sanctions over the issue and over its human rights record.

    The government began secret talks with Aung San Suu Kyi in October 2000, but in recent weeks the international community has been voicing its impatience at the lack of progress.

    Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of assassinated independence hero Aung San, was held under house arrest from 1989 to 1995.

    But her release in 1995 did not herald any political change, and she was again placed under house arrest in 2000, when she tried to travel by train to Mandalay in defiance of restrictions put on her.

    The BBC's Matt Frei
    "She insists that her freedom has had no price"
    Pro-democracy campaigner Ko Aung
    "I am really happy"
    The BBC's Fergal Keane
    "She's endured harassment and house arrest"
    See also:

    06 May 02 | Asia-Pacific
    World welcomes Suu Kyi release
    30 Apr 02 | Asia-Pacific
    Hopes mount for Burma breakthrough
    28 Apr 02 | Asia-Pacific
    Burma talks 'make progress'
    24 Apr 02 | Asia-Pacific
    Q&A: Aung San Suu Kyi's release
    06 May 02 | Asia-Pacific
    Profile: Aung San Suu Kyi
    24 Apr 02 | Asia-Pacific
    UN envoy holds Burma talks
    19 Mar 02 | Asia-Pacific
    Analysis: Burma's secret talks
    06 May 02 | Asia-Pacific
    Aung San Suu Kyi: Symbol of resistance
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