PYAY, Myanmar >> Few convicts leave prison with their heads held high. Political detainees, like the several hundred released Friday under a presidential pardon in Myanmar, are a different matter. Unrepentant for the most part, they often leave jail toughened, if not energized.
Min Ko Naing is another case altogether.
His real name is Paw U Tun, but he is better known by his pseudonym, which means "Conqueror of Kings."
Joyous crowds greeted the nearly legendary leader of a failed 1988 pro-democracy uprising after he was released from prison in Thayet, 345 miles north of Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city and former capital.
At frequent stops during his journey back to his home in Yangon on Friday and Saturday, Min Ko Naing rallied his supporters, saying he would not give up the fight for democracy and freedom he launched 24 years ago.
A year ago, such scenes would have been unlikely. But Myanmar is a different place now, with freedom starting to take root since the installation of a military-backed but elected government that has embarked on a series of reforms. An independent but censored press is flourishing, and front pages of newspapers feature once-taboo news of the country’s democracy movement and its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.
Calendars, T-shirts and other paraphernalia of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party are sold openly on the streets of Yangon.
But the adoring reception Min Ko Naing received as he traveled to Yangon was the kind one might encounter on a campaign trail of a sure winner, with crowds of up to 1,000 people turning out along the route and tying up traffic.
After a ferry ride on the Irrawaddy River, he set out from Pyay, also known as Prome, 180 miles (280 kilometers) north of Yangon, in a brown, 12-seat van with family and relatives. Serving as an escort was a pickup truck carrying youths from Suu Kyi’s party, flying the party flag of a fighting peacock gazing at a white star. Nearly 50 horn-honking motorcycles ran on ahead.
Along the route, many shouted "Good health" and "Long live Min Ko Naing." They came out of their houses to give bouquets of flowers to the student leader, with loud cheers and applause erupting whenever Min Ko Naing came out of his van to greet the crowds.
Addressing a group of about 200 people near Shwe Myet Hman pagoda in Shwe Taung town, about 170 miles (270 kilometers) north of Yangon, Min Ko Naing shouted through a loudspeaker that the students who fought for democracy and freedom in 1988 will continue their struggle, and asked for their support.
"I was given 65 years’ imprisonment. If I have to serve all the 65 years, I will have to continue to serve them in my next life," he said to the cheering crowd. "I’m now free because of the support of the people."
Myint Kyi came on his bicycle to see Min Ko Naing paying respects at a temple in Pyay.
"I have heard a lot of good things about Min Ko Naing and I want to see him in person. I am very proud of him and I can call it my day after I’ve seen him," said the 67-year old retired lawyer.
It is unlikely the generals who still are the ultimate arbiters of power in Myanmar see things the same way. Elections and reforms notwithstanding, they don’t react well to their rivals’ shows of popularity.
When Suu Kyi drew vast, enthusiastic crowds during a political tour of central Myanmar in 2003, pro-government thugs ambushed her entourage, killing several of her supporters, and she spent the next seven years under house arrest.
Min Ko Naing rose to prominence when, as a university student majoring in zoology, he was president of the clandestine Universities Student Union of Burma (Myanmar), as students spearheaded the popular rebellion against the 26-year autocratic rule of strongman Gen. Ne Win.
His bold speeches fired up the public — but also assured that he would be targeted by the military when it gained the upper hand. Arrested in March 1989, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison for having delivered anti-government speeches and agitating unrest. His sentence was later commuted to 10 years under a general amnesty, but he was kept behind bars anyway until 2004.
On his release, he and his comrades, collectively known as the "88 Generation Student Group," plunged right back into political organizing, and in short order were sent back to prison in 2007 after he led a rare protest against massive fuel price hikes and economic hardship. The small protests helped spark the bigger — but failed — "Saffon Revolution" demonstrations later that year. He was given a 65-year prison sentence.
Min Ko Naing doesn’t have quite the prestige as Suu Kyi, the daughter of independence hero Gen. Aung San and holder of the Nobel peace prize. But he is only 49 years old, in a country led by much older men.
He and his comrades are the face of Myanmar’s future — if the military is agreeable.
Thein Sein, who took office last year, has initiated a series of reforms, including the start of a dialogue with Suu Kyi, legalizing labor unions and the signing of a cease-fire agreement in a long-running campaign against Karen insurgents. Friday’s prisoner release won them a long-coveted prize: Washington’s announcement that it would upgrade diplomatic relations to posting an ambassador again in Myanmar. The last U.S. envoy was withdrawn after the violent crushing of the 1988 uprising.
Myanmar still wants to see a lifting of economic and political sanctions by the United States and other Western nations. Meanwhile, for all the reform efforts, underlying Thein Sein’s government is a constitution ensuring that the military retains ultimate political power.
Suu Kyi has described the president as sincere, but in an interview with The Associated Press last week, she acknowledged that the reforms are not "unstoppable" and will succeed only if the powerful military accepts the changes.
Min Ko Naing shares both Suu Kyi’s optimism and her caution.
The reforms that are currently taking place in the country are encouraging, but "there are elements that do not want reforms," he told the AP in an interview Saturday morning in Pyay. "We are willing to work with anyone for democracy, but there could also be challenges from those who are keen to backtrack."
He said that the government has shown its eagerness to be accepted by the international community, but that it still must free whatever political prisoner remain behind bars and make further efforts for peace and stability with the ethnic minorities who continue to struggle for greater autonomy.
Associated Press writer Grant Peck in Bangkok contributed to this report.