SAN FRANCISCO -- In a gathering tinged with both a global sense of gravity and emotional intimacy, the Bay Area's Burmese refugee community gave freedom fighter Aung San Suu Kyi a rock-star welcome Saturday, greeting the Nobel Peace Prize-winner with the warm embrace of a family reunited after being split asunder by history and fate.
On her first visit here in more than four decades, the longtime democracy activist who after 15 years of house arrest was elected this past spring to the Myanmar parliament was visibly moved by the adoring crowd of 5,000 who joined her in a town hall-style gathering at the University of San Francisco. And the crowd was clearly moved by her.
"I've been waiting for this moment for 22 years," said Khin Mama, a Daly City restaurant owner who was sent out of the Southeast Asian country by her parents after the military junta Suu Kyi had fought against took over. "Until now, we have all been afraid to get involved publicly in the pro-democracy movement, afraid to go before the cameras. But because of Suu Kyi, we are brave now, and it's OK to speak out."
For more than an hour, Suu Kyi spoke softly yet eloquently, switching between English and Burmese, reaching into a bowl to pull out one question after another as she sat alone on a stage framed by pink orchids and yellow roses.
And while her comments were laced with a gentle laughter, Suu Kyi's message was soberingly clear: Yes, she and her National League for Democracy party welcomed the support of the Bay Area's Burmese community, the largest in the United States and a longtime bastion of opposition to Myanmar's military-led dictatorship. However, she cautioned that everyone should be aware of just how dangerous the path forward may be.
"Our country," she told the crowd, "is now on the verge of a new path. We are just about to start out, but we are not along the way yet. And because we're just at the beginning, this is a delicate and difficult time."
Speaking at times in a schoolmarmish tone, as if she were teaching children a lesson, Suu Kyi stressed that her country is desperately in need of things long taken for granted in most democracies, such as a quality education system with equal access for all. At the same time, she said, the fledgling democracy movement is fragile and further complicated by long-standing feuds among the Burmese and the country's many ethnic minorities.
"Let me remind people who want to come back to help us that there are many things they have to learn, too," she said. "One is that Burma is a nation of many ethnic nationalities. And while it's been our aspiration to live together in peace and posterity, the fires of conflict have not all died out in my country."
To successfully nudge Myanmar toward a more open and participatory government, she said, "we need to do everything we can to make sure those fires die out and that fuel for future fires is demolished as well."
For the Burmese who had traveled to San Francisco from throughout Northern California and beyond -- many of whom had fought and then fled the military repression years ago -- Suu Kyi's appearance nearly took on the feel of a religious experience, or at least a deeply personal one.
"I think of her as my second mother," said Kyaw Min Oo, a hotel worker on the Peninsula whose childhood memories include the 1988 uprising and its violent suppression by the military as "very scary. I felt fear everywhere. Now with the change happening, I want to be there again and do all I can. Listening to Suu Kyi today inspired me to do whatever I can to help my people."
The 67-year-old Suu Kyi, known by many supporters simply as The Lady, had come to the Bay Area to join a summit of global dissidents, as well as accept an honorary degree from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and a key to the city from San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee.
But it was her sit-down with 5,000 of her fellow freedom-lovers that was the emotional pinnacle of her trip. She smiled constantly and told funny stories like the one about her dog.
When someone asked what she does in her free time, Suu Kyi said, "I have a little dog who is prone to biting strangers. So I'm thinking maybe I should bring the dog into the parliament with me. I think that might be a good method to keep members of parliament alert."
Her National League for Democracy, which won a substantial parliamentary majority in the 1990 general election only to have the victory denied by the ruling junta, recently won 43 of the 45 vacant seats in the lower house, a small fraction of the overall body. But in one of her most telling comments, Suu Kyi indicated that her parliamentary experience so far has given her hope.
"At first I wondered if this little minority of ours would be able to do anything except doze off," she said. "But parliamentary deliberations have been very democratic, and the speaker has been extremely generous and fair to us."
Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution and founding co-editor of the Journal of Democracy, said he was "struck by the optimism she had about her participation in parliament. That was the single most hopeful thing she could say -- that the leaders are reaching out to her."
Still, Diamond said, "there was little said about the guts of the transition. There's a lot of heavy lifting to be done if they're successful moving from a liberalized authoritarian regime, which is what it is now, to a true democracy."