When generals in Burma (now called Myanmar) decided to free the world's most famous prisoner, they gave their country and supporters of human rights across the planet a reason to celebrate. Few people alive today embody courage, integrity and devotion to a cause the way Aung San Suu Kyi does.
In a time when the word ``hero'' has lost much of its meaning from overuse, Suu Kyi's life, and the choices she has made over the last 21 years, show exactly what the word means. She has paid what would seem an unbearable personal price, but her focus remains on her countryman's suffering. ``If my people aren't free, how can I say I'm free,'' she asked after ending yet another term of house arrest.
Precisely because Suu Kyi's bravery knows no bounds, there is a good chance that, like her previous releases, this one will prove short-lived.
If there is a dark lining clouding this joyous moment it is knowing that the generals freed her because they feel so strong. They believe they can hold on to power even if Suu Kyi is free. The junta expects to reap benefits not only from freeing Suu Kyi but also from their recent sham election.
The Burmese military, which has ruled the country since 1962, just pulled off an electoral charade in which its own parties -- laughably -- won 80 percent of the vote. The election rules were so outrageous that Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, the most popular party in the country, decided to boycott the vote. As a result, it was forced to disband, at least in theory. But the NLD remains a force for change, as Suu Kyi has made clear.
The Nobel Peace Prize winner could have walked free a long time ago, had she agreed to leave the country. The generals -- who renamed the country Myanmar, renamed the old capital Rangoon Yangon and then moved the government to the heart of the jungle to protect themselves from a population that despises them -- would like nothing more than to see Suu Kyi disappear.
``The Lady,'' as she is known, commands the hearts of her people. But getting rid of Suu Kyi is not so simple. She became an accidental leader after traveling from her home in England to visit her dying mother in 1988. The tide of a student movement against tyranny swept her up. After all, her name alone conjured freedom. Her father was the hero of independence, the George Washington of Burma. But her power went beyond her name. Suu Kyi's hold on the Burmese hearts was earned by personal sacrifice, intelligence and charisma. In 1990, Burmese overwhelmingly voted for her NLD. She should have become prime minister. Instead she became a prisoner, spending most of the last two decades in captivity.
Some of the most powerful experiences of my life occurred in Burma, seeing the electrifying reaction of everyday people at my efforts to see Suu Kyi, or at the mere mention of her name.
The Burmese are rightly terrified of the brutal military regime that has ground a once-prosperous country into misery over its half-century of misrule, putting thousands in prison, forcing many more into slave labor and leading millions into exile while the generals plundered the country's natural resources. But Suu Kyi's release filled the people with courage. They wore T-shirts with her picture even as government thugs ominously filmed the crowds.
An earlier stint of freedom ended in 2003 when her motorcade was attacked by government thugs, probably an assassination attempt. She was put back under arrest ``for her own protection.''
The generals fear the Lady with good reason. Within moments of gaining her freedom, the slender woman with the core of steel demonstrated she has not been beaten. She called for revolution, peaceful revolution, but revolution nonetheless. Showing no sign of ill will toward her tormentors, she also said she wants dialogue with the military.
What the military wants is a way to protect and perpetuate its rule under the cover of the new ``elected'' parliament. The generals want to ease the pressure on themselves and on the Asian countries, China and others, that trade with them despite Western objections.
If the West wants to help Suu Kyi and her people succeed in their quest for freedom, it must make it clear that freeing her was only one step in what remains a very long road to true justice in Burma.