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Supporters of Myanmar's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi hold portraits their detained leader at her National League for Democracy (NLD) headquarters in Rangoon, Myanmar.

Khin Maung Win/AP

As rumours rippled through Rangoon Friday that democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi was about to be released from house arrest, hundreds of supporters gathered outside her gate, hoping to catch a glimpse of the woman they know simply as "The Lady." Many had prepared garlands of flowers to hang around her neck in case she passed them by on her first walk outside her compound gates in seven years.

Across Myanmar's border with Thailand, along the muddy banks of the Moei River two monks, one young, one older, stood staring into the country they were forced to flee, wondering if Ms. Suu Kyi's freedom might also bring them a step closer to going home.

"I will be very happy if she really is released, because she is the leader of the people," said Partita, a 20-year-old monk who escaped to Thailand with his father following the "Saffron Revolution" in 2007, a failed monk-led uprising against military rule. They joined some 160,000 Myanmarese who have fled to Thailand following decades of military rule and ethnic conflicts. Nearly all of them are hoping Ms. Suu Kyi's release will set in motion a chain of events that could bring them home.

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News of Ms. Suu Kyi's release on Friday proved to be premature, but the generals who rule the country better known as Burma have hinted strongly she will indeed be released when her sentence expires Saturday. The question is what she will do with her freedom, if it's granted to her.

It's hard to imagine anyone living up to such expectations. Many worry that the generals who run the country will find another excuse to keep Ms. Suu Kyi in detention, or will place harsh restrictions on Ms. Suu Kyi's movements if they do release her.

More quietly, an increasing number of people - even among her supporters - wonder how relevant the slight and charismatic winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize still is after spending most of the past two decades detained in her dilapidated lakeside home, isolated from the people she still hopes to lead.

Except for a brief appearance during the 2007 uprising she hasn't been seen in public since her last arrest in 2003. She has been without the use of a telephone, or Internet access, and has only been allowed to see junta-approved visitors.

Ms. Suu Kyi, if she's released, will re-enter a significantly changed political scene than the one she turned upside down two decades ago. And while still widely revered, even her supporters acknowledge she's no longer viewed as the faultless angel of democracy she appeared to be when she returned from Europe to lead anti-government protests in 1988.

The biggest change is the most recent one. Ms. Suu Kyi's release comes six days after the country held its first election since her National League for Democracy swept a 1990 vote that the military never honoured.

The Nov. 7 vote - which saw the regime claim 80 per cent of the seats - has been widely derided as a sham, but on paper Myanmar now has a new parliament. A civilian government, albeit one expected to be led by ex-generals, is being formed after 48 years of direct military rule, and the vote created opposition leaders not named Aung San Suu Kyi. Her NLD lost its official party status and was forced to disband after she and the party leadership decided not to run in an election they foresaw was unwinnable under the junta's rules.

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The daughter of General Aung San, the man revered for bringing about Burma's independence, Ms. Suu Kyi was barred from standing in the election because of her "criminal record." She decreed that instead of running, the NLD should stand by its demand that the junta finally honour the 1990 results.

The decision was typical Aung San Suu Kyi - principled, unbending and arguably self-defeating. The NLD fractured over the decision, with a small breakaway faction arguing that the chance to campaign and get their message out for the first time in 20 years was more valuable than the moral high ground to which Ms. Suu Kyi insisted on clinging.

Even some of her former allies wondered if their leader hadn't smashed a chance to re-enter official politics and rebuild some of the momentum the pro-democracy movement had 20 years ago. But, then and now, Ms. Suu Kyi always sacrificed practicality at the altar of principle.

"We made a lot of mistakes back (in 1988-1990). We were too emotional, too principled. … We failed to negotiate with the regime, we failed to give them an exit strategy," said Nyo Ohn Myint, head of foreign affairs for the NLD's exile wing who was a bodyguard and adviser to Ms. Suu Kyi until he fled an arrest warrant in 1989. Cornering the regime back then, he said, precipitated the crackdown that followed, when some 3,000 people were killed and the election results annulled.

"After 22 years, we should learn from our mistakes. But that's easy for me to say now, because I'm in a free country with no restrictions."

Many talk about that stubbornness - they used to call it perseverance - and wonder if the country's political deadlock might not be closer to resolution if The Lady had during the past two decades been willing to make the sort of compromise deal that Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai was willing to. After years of fighting against the dictatorial regime of Robert Mugabe, Mr. Tsvangirai eventually agreed to a power-sharing agreement - with him as prime minister and Mr. Mugabe as president - in order to facilitate the return of aid and investment to the impoverished country.

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Ms. Suu Kyi's call to boycott the election now looks wiser to many of those who once questioned it - the junta's claim to have won 80 per cent of the seats proved cynics right and optimists wrong - but even her supporters are hoping to hear something different from the now 65-year-old democracy icon if she is released.

The old strategies - passively insisting on the 1990 election results while relying on international pressure to bring the regime to its knees - not only haven't worked, some argue they've done more harm to the country than good.

While few go so far as to blame Ms. Suu Kyi for the country's economic struggles and international isolation (nearly everyone lays that at the doorstep of Senior General Than Shwe and his regime) there are many who now question Ms. Suu Kyi's support for sanctions and a tourist boycott of the country.

That sentiment is particularly strong among Myanmar's frustrated youth. The generation that has grown up since 1990 has done so in an isolated country with a tattered economy, a place where the Internet is a fleeting luxury because of power blackouts. Some have never heard Ms. Suu Kyi speak, but have read in the state-run media that she is to blame for the sanctions. To some, democracy matters less than finding a way to lure investment, tourists - and jobs - back into the country.

"The younger generation doesn't see eye-to-eye with her on certain positions she took, such as the economic sanctions and the tourism boycott. They're more welcoming of investment and tourists coming into the country. They want to be in touch with foreigners and to open up the borders," said Zaw Oo, director of the Vahu Development Institute, a think tank in Chiang Mai, Thailand.





Some say Ms. Suu Kyi is trapped between her unwillingness to compromise with the regime and her refusal to challenge it more forcefully.

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"Than Shwe is happy for her to take the moral high ground and continue non-violent struggle because he's happy with the guns. Than Shwe knows the only possibility for change in Burma is armed revolution and Aung San Suu Kyi is not willing to do that," said Aung Zaw, editor-in-chief of exile magazine The Irrawaddy. He said Ms. Suu Kyi and the NLD needed to "think outside their historical box" and come up with a new strategy if they wanted to rally people back to their cause and put the regime back on the defensive.

Nonetheless, Ms. Suu Kyi still poses a substantial threat in the junta's eyes, which is why the generals have devoted such effort to keeping her away from a public that - whichever direction she chooses - will likely follow her as far as she asks them to go.

Many hope that after once more demonstrating her popularity - her first movements are expected to be a press conference, followed by speeches in Rangoon and anywhere else she's allowed to travel - Ms. Suu Kyi will reach out to the regime, using her status as the daughter of the man who founded Myanmar's military to provide the generals a graceful path to retirement.





"People question what her role is, but of all the pieces in this struggle, there is one that is hers: she's the centrepiece of national reconciliation, " said Khin Omar, a student activist at the time who is now co-ordinator of the Burma Partnership, a pro-democracy NGO based in Mae Sot.

"There's no one else but Aung San Suu Kyi."

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