'She Is Not Alone'

For years most people in Rangoon behaved as if a curse lay on the decaying blue house at 54 University Avenue. When they couldn't avoid the neighborhood entirely, they scurried down the opposite side of the street, scarcely glancing toward the weed-choked garden behind the green and yellow picket fence. That sense of dread vanished abruptly last week. Festive crowds gathered outside Aung San Suu Kyi's home, and nothing could drive them away--not nightfall or fear of arrest by Burma's military rulers or the monsoon season's drenching rains. Some followers of the Nobel Peace Prizewinning political activist even dared speak openly about her sudden release from house arrest. "We want her to know that we all know how she suffered and that we are all behind her," declared a Burmese who works as a secretary for one international firm's Rangoon of-flee. "She is not alone."

Can such support change Burma? No one knows. Ever since seizing power in 1962, the military has shown scant regard for popular opinion, whether domestic or foreign. The regime has summarily killed or locked up thousands of presumed enemies, used its prisoners as slave labor and blithely ignored international sanctions and the Burmese people's own increasingly desperate poverty. Suu Kyi's arrest in July 1989 provoked furious diplomatic protests, but the generals paid no heed. A year later, when-despite her continued imprisonment--her National League for Democracy scored an overwhelming electoral victory, the junta simply voided the results. The government continues to hold hundreds of political prisoners, including many supporters and friends of Suu Kyi.

The junta offered no public explanations for freeing its most famous adversary last week. The state-run press made no mention of her release at all; instead, the news raced across Burma via foreign radio services and word of mouth. Once a day, Suu Kyi climbed atop an old table just inside her horne's main gate and warned the cheering crowds outside not to imagine that repression has ended in Burma. She issued a similar message to international aid donors: "We're nowhere near democracy. I've been released, that's all. There's nothing else. The situation hasn't changed in any other way. All those who are interested in the development of democracy in Burma should wait to see what happens next."

The regime may think it had nothing to lose by setting Suu Kyi free. The junta's control over Burma has never been so unchallenged. In the past few months the government's forces have all but eradicated the countryside's last major guerrilla group, the Karen insurgents. Meanwhile, private investment, especially from Japan, France and Singapore, has begun pouring into the country. Downtown Rangoon is becoming one big construction site for new international hotels and office buildings. But the private economic boom only underscores the urgent need for money to build decent roads, modern sewers and public necessities-improvements that depend on the good will of agencies like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Monsoons made foot-deep lakes of the commercial district's streets last week. The crowds on University Avenue kept growing. And the junta's troops remained ready for trouble.