Defiant Suu Kyi symbol of hope in Myanmar

So fearful are the generals of the Nobel Peace Prize winner's popularity that they have kept the petite and softly-spoken 65-year-old locked up for 15 of the past 21 years, a prisoner in her own home.

While some see her as a figure from the past, no longer so relevant following the emergence of a new generation of pro-democracy activists, for her many supporters she represents the best chance of a better future.Hundreds gathered outside her home and her party headquarters in eager anticipation of her release.

Little is known about what she plans to do if freed, apart from a desire to join Twitter to reach out to supporters worldwide, but few expect her to abandon her long struggle for democracy.

"The energy is still there. The commitment is still there," said Andrew Heyn, Britain's ambassador to Myanmar who met with the dissident last year when she was allowed rare talks with a group of Western diplomats.

"She's well informed, she's committed, and the message I got when I spoke to her -- not only by what she said but her body language and everything about her (was): this is a woman who wants to stay involved."

Suu Kyi swept the National League for Democracy (NLD) to a landslide election win in 1990, wooing crowds with her charisma and eloquent speeches calling for peaceful change, but the regime never accepted the result.

Her party boycotted the country's first election in 20 years, held on November 7, saying the rules were unfair. The move left the opposition bitterly divided and attention is now on whether Suu Kyi can unite it again.

Suu Kyi has been largely cut off from the outside world, with no telephone or Internet access and just two female aides for company, apart from occasional visits from her doctor and lawyer.

When the softly-spoken but indomitable opposition leader was last released in 2002 she drew huge crowds wherever she went -- a reminder that years of detention had not dimmed her immense popularity.

"After 22 years since she entered politics, she has become an institution and so the public will rally around her as long as she's alive," said Maung Zarni, a Myanmar research fellow at the London School of Economics.

Oxford-educated Suu Kyi entered Myanmar's political arena at a relatively late stage, after spending much of her life abroad in India and then Britain, but politics was always in her blood.


The daughter of Myanmar's liberation hero General Aung San, who was assassinated in 1947, she returned to Yangon in 1988 to nurse her sick mother, as protests erupted against the military and were brutally crushed.

She was quick to take on a leading role in the pro-democracy movement, petitioning the government to prepare for elections and delivering speeches to hundreds of thousands of people at the city's glittering Shwedagon Pagoda.

Alarmed by the support she commanded, the generals ordered her first stint of house arrest in 1989.  Her most recent stretch of forced isolation began in May 2003 after a deadly attack on her convoy by supporters of the junta.

Her many years in detention have seen her live a spartan existence of early meditation, spy novels and rare chocolate treats -- said to be her only "vice" by diplomats who have been in contact with her.

Her struggle for her country has also come at a high personal cost: her husband, British academic Michael Aris, died in 1999, and in the final stages of his battle with cancer the junta refused him a visa to see his wife.

Suu Kyi refused to leave Myanmar to see him, certain she would never have been allowed to return. She has not seen her two sons for about a decade and has never met her grandchildren.

Her youngest son Kim Aris, 33, had arrived in Bangkok ahead of the election, and his mother's possible release.Many also think the generals will restrict her political activities, aware she is the only figure who is capable of unifying the opposition.

"To achieve democracy the people should be united. that is very clear. It is a very plain fact," Suu Kyi told a mass rally at Shwedagon in August 1988. "If there is no unity of purpose we shall be unable to achieve anything at all."

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