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Suu Kyi's freedom: A catalyst for change or not?

By Moni Basu and Joe Sterling, CNN
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Suu Kyi's lawyer cynical over release
  • Suu Kyi's release renews hope for change in Myanmar
  • But human rights activists voiced cautious optimism
  • The hardline junta has been in power since 1962
  • It's hard to predict what Suu Kyi might be able to accomplish

(CNN) -- Nyi Nyi Aung learned the news just before sunrise Saturday: The woman who has inspired him in his two-decade-long struggle was free.

Myanmar's military rulers released democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest Saturday, and across the globe, hope stirred again in the hearts of those who have been advocating for change in the authoritarian nation.

"She is the only one who has the patience, the ideas on how to solve the problem in Burma," Nyi Nyi said, refusing to use the name for his country favored by the junta.

But amid the joy, Nyi Nyi, a resident of the Washington area, voiced the same cautious optimism that rang from all corners.

Was Suu Kyi's release conditional? What will she be able to accomplish under the thumb of a hardline dictatorship that has stamped out voices of opposition and just held an election that has been widely criticized as a sham?

This was the third time the regime has released Suu Kyi from house arrest. Benjamin Zawacki, Myanmar expert for Amnesty International, noted that her last release had been unconditional and then she was thrown again into house arrest.

He said conditions could be rolled out as events on the ground unfold, and the government could interpret a given event or act as a justification to make an arrest.

Zawacki also labeled the move as a political calculation.

The regime is trying to reinvent itself as democratic, he said, first with the elections last Sunday and now with Suu Kyi's release.

There is concern, he said, that other countries will take the regime's bait and lessen their resolve to continue to take tough actions in the sanctions and human rights arenas.

Among those concerned is Nyi Nyi, who appealed on behalf of the Burmese people for nations like the United States to maintain pressure on Myanmar's regime to implement change.

"We are planning to stand by [Suu Kyi]," he said. "But we need everyone to keep up the pressure."

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Suu Kyi released

Michael Green, a Center for Strategic and International Studies expert on Asia and a senior Asia adviser to former President George W. Bush, said the move was calculated precisely to forestall international isolation punishment, including a possible U.N. commission that would probe human rights abuses.

It was not at all a sign, he said, that the regime is trying to patch things up with its internal rivals.

"I think the starting premise for this is the incredible loathing and fear that this regime has for Aung San Suu Kyi," Green said. "It knows almost no bounds. You can discount that this is a gesture at international reconciliation."

The audience for the move, he said, was external, a conscious effort to "drive a wedge" between countries that are inclined to support Myanmar, such as India and China, and countries such as the United States, Japan, Australia and European nations, which want tough action.

The hardline military junta took power in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, in 1962. It's difficult to predict what will transpire in the days and weeks ahead, but most agree that Suu Kyi's release is not likely to spur change right away.

"This is, at best, a single step forward on the proverbial thousand-mile journey," said Jared Genser, one of Suu Kyi's lawyers who is based in the United States.

"We should recall she's been out on numerous occasions before over the last 21 years, and nothing has changed in the country. And indeed, in the last several years, the military regime in Burma has not taken even a single step to try to demonstrate its willingness to compromise," he said.

Still, Nyo Ohn Myint, a committee leader in Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party, said there is no doubt that Saturday's release is a key moment in modern Myanmar history.

The regime is at a political crossroads, he said. It could be that Myanmar's generals are feeling overly confident after the election, an issue Myint said is a priority on Suu Kyi's agenda. Her release again puts momentum on the side of the opposition.

"She has tremendous political power," Myint said about his friend of two decades. "This is not the end of the story, only the beginning of the struggle."

Meanwhile, human rights activists as well as global leaders -- including President Obama -- reminded the world that there is a long struggle ahead to secure basic freedoms for the people of Myanmar.

Despite Suu Kyi's release, more than 2,200 other political prisoners were still sitting behind bars in Myanmar jails.

Navi Pillay, the U.N. human rights commissioner, called Suu Kyi's release a "positive signal" that the Myanmar authorities are willing to move forward with the serious challenge of democratic transition.

"Clearly, Aung San Suu Kyi can make a major contribution to this process," Pillay said, adding her disappointment that Suu Kyi was not allowed to participate in the elections.

She urged the authorities to release the other political prisoners as "a clear sign that the new government intends to respect human rights and forge a new future for the country."

For Nyi Nyi, the matter is highly personal.

He himself spent time in jail in Myanmar for his activism, and his mother, Sann Sann Tin, has been imprisoned since she was arrested in protests in 2007. Not a day goes by that he doesn't think of his 63-year-old mother's plight.

That's why the joy of seeing the images of Suu Kyi again addressing her supporters was marred.

"That's why we don't think of it as freedom for Burma," he said.