YANGON, Myanmar – Supporters of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi gathered near her home and at her party's headquarters Saturday, hoping to see the Nobel Peace Prize laureate taste freedom after seven years of detention by Myanmar's ruling generals.
Scores of people holding a vigil were disappointed that she was not given an early release Friday night, but colleagues said an order to set her free had already been signed by Myanmar's junta. The period of her latest detention expires Saturday.
Jailed or under house arrest for more than 15 of the last 21 years, Suu Kyi has become a symbol for a struggle to rid the Southeast Asian country of decades of military rule.
Adding to the expectant atmosphere was a sharply stepped-up security presence in Yangon, with truckloads of riot police cruising the streets and parked at major junctions — a familiar sight to city residents during times of political tension.
The country's first election in 20 years was held Nov. 7, and critics allege it was manipulated to give a pro-military party a sweeping victory. Results have been released piecemeal and already have given the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party a majority in both houses of Parliament.
The 1990 election was won in a landslide by Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party, but the military refused to hand over power and instead clamped down on its opponents.
Suu Kyi was convicted last year of violating the terms of her previous detention by briefly sheltering an American man who swam uninvited to her lakeside home, extending a period of continuous detention that began in 2003, after her motorcade was ambushed in northern Myanmar by a government-backed mob.
"My sources tell me that the release order has been signed," said Tin Oo, vice chairman of Suu Kyi's party. "I hope she will be released."
He did not say when she would be freed or when the order had been signed.
More than 100 people gathered Saturday at the ramshackle NLD headquarters, with women cooking food and people bringing flowers to place before posters of Suu Kyi and her late father, revered independence hero Gen. Aung San.
People wore T-shirts reading "We stand with Aung San Suu Kyi" and "Freedom from Fear," a title of one of her books. Undercover police were present in force, taking photographs.
Other supporters gathered around a barbed wire barricade leading to her home on University Avenue, a leafy residential area of Myanmar's largest city.
Suu Kyi, 65, has shown her mettle time and again since taking up the democracy struggle in 1988.
Having spent much of her life abroad, she returned home to take care of her ailing mother just as mass demonstrations were breaking out against 25 years of military rule. She was quickly thrust into a leadership role, mainly because she was the daughter of Aung San, who led Myanmar to independence from Great Britain before his assassination by political rivals.
She rode out the military's bloody suppression of street demonstrations to help found the NLD. Her principled defiance gained her fame and honor, most notably the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize.
Charismatic, tireless and outspoken, her popularity threatened the country's new military rulers. In 1989, she was detained on trumped-up national security charges and put under house arrest. She was not released until 1995 and has spent various periods in detention since then.
Suu Kyi's freedom has been a key demand of Western nations and groups critical of the military regime's poor human rights record. The military government, seeking to burnish its international image, has responded previously by offering to talk with her, only to later shy away from serious negotiations.
Suu Kyi plans to help probe allegations of election fraud, according to Nyan Win, who is also a spokesman for her party, which was officially disbanded for refusing to reregister for this year's polls.
Such action, which could embarrass the junta, poses the sort of challenge the military has reacted to in the past by detaining Suu Kyi.
Awaiting her release in Bangkok in neighboring Thailand is the younger of her two sons, Kim Aris, who is seeking the chance to see his mother for the first time in 10 years. Aris lives in Britain and has been repeatedly denied visas.
Her late husband, British scholar Michael Aris, raised their sons in England. Their eldest son, Alexander Aris, accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on his mother's behalf in 1991 and reportedly lives in the United States.
Michael Aris died of prostate cancer in 1999 at 53 after having been denied visas to see his wife for the three years before his death. Suu Kyi could have left Myanmar to see her family but decided not to, fearing the junta would not allow her back in.
The NLD's dilapidated headquarters in Yangon has been bustling with party members cleaning her old office.
Nyan Win said Suu Kyi would meet with the NLD's central committee, members of the media and the public after her release. He noted that after earlier detentions, she always visited the Shwedagon pagoda, one of the most sacred sites in Myanmar, formerly called Burma.
The junta called this month's vote a major step toward democracy. Suu Kyi was barred from participating and critics said it was aimed at cementing the military's power. Top members of the ruling junta were among those who won seats, including Prime Minister Thein Sein, who also heads the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party.