YANGON, Myanmar — Pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi walked free Saturday after more than seven years under house arrest, welcomed by thousands of cheering supporters outside the decaying lakefront villa that has been her prison.
Her guards effectively announced the end of her detention, pulling back the barbed-wire barriers that sealed off her potholed street and suddenly allowing thousands of expectant supporters to surge toward the house. Many chanted her name as they ran. Some wept.
A few minutes later, with the soldiers and police having evaporated into the Yangon twilight, she climbed atop a stepladder behind the gate as the crowd began singing the national anthem.
"We haven't seen each other for so long, I have so much to tell you," she said, re-establishing the bond that has made her such a challenge to the military she confronts.
When a supporter handed the slight 65-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate a bouquet, she pulled out a flower and wove it into her hair.
Suu Kyi (pronounced Sue Chee) promised to speak at greater length today at the headquarters of her political party. "I'll have a loudspeaker then," she said, to laughter. "I won't say anything more now, since you can't hear me anyway."
The scene at the gates of her compound suggested that her popularity was undiminished.
"She is our mother, she is our mother!" cried a woman in the crowd.
The junta, which has ruled Myanmar since 1962, kept Suu Kyi out of the public eye for 15 of the past 21 years. Her latest period of house arrest lasted 7 1/2 years.
Her release, just five days after an election that recast the structure of military rule in Myanmar, suggested that the generals who rule the country were confident of their position and ready to face down the devotion she still commands both among her countrymen and among Western nations.
But the election itself, which drew accusations of fraud from almost all opposition parties, opened a new area of discontent that Suu Kyi's lawyers said she planned to exploit by joining their challenge to the legitimacy of the election.
There was no immediate word on whether the ruling junta had tried to set conditions on her release. Western diplomats said their nations' response to the end of her detention would depend on her treatment now.
One of her lawyers, U Kyi Maung, said that even if no formal conditions were placed, her movements could still be restricted, as they had been at times after her previous releases.
The immediate response from Western capitals to her release Friday was one of celebration. Her freedom has been their first demand in calling for political freedoms and respect for human rights in the nation also known as Burma.
"She is a hero of mine," said President Barack Obama, "and a source of inspiration for all who work to advance basic human rights in Burma and around the world."
World leaders also tempered their jubilation with warnings to the junta to leave her alone.
Suu Kyi did not immediately talk about her plans. But another of her lawyers, U Nyan Win, said earlier that she intended to become engaged in political activities.
It was not clear what these activities might be, but the future poses a challenge to her, several analysts said. Suu Kyi will be re-entering a battleground more complicated and difficult than the one she had faced in the past.
"It's certainly not going to be easy for her," said Thant Myint-U, a former U.N. official who has written widely on the country.
"This is a very, very different political landscape than when she was released the last time," he said. "The country is facing a whole slew of new challenges and opportunities."
Her party, the National League for Democracy, won the previous election, in 1990, but the generals annulled the result and clung to power. The victory gave her the standing to speak as the nation's disenfranchised leader. That result has now been superseded by the new election.
The National League declined to participate in the recent election, calling it unfair and undemocratic, and was therefore required to disband.
Full election results from last weekend's controversial elections have not been released, but officials of the Union Solidarity and Development Party, which is backed by the regime, have indicated that it has won close to 80 percent of the parliamentary seats.
"The election is only a small part of a much bigger political transition taking place," said Thant Myint-U, who added that will include a new president and an appointed new government, the creation of regional structures as well as a national security council and other institutions created by a new Constitution.
"In many ways Myanmar is not the isolated, closed-off country that it was 10 or 20 years ago," Thant Myint-U said. "It's a very complex place. I think we could say for sure that this year, these couple of years, are without a doubt the country's most important watershed in a generation."
Billions of dollars in investment have been pouring in from China and other Asian nations, and although the people of Myanmar still struggle in abject poverty, the ruling class is better off than ever.
The affluence is based on new income from oil and gas pipelines.
This report contains information from the Associated Press, the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times.