Burmese Junta Extends Opposition Leaders Detention


May 6, 2002: Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Photo: AFP/Stephen Shaver

BANGKOK—Burma’s ruling junta has extended the house arrest of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, although the length of the extension was unclear, according to Burmese sources.

Over the years the government has consistently jailed her and kept her under house arrest for 'security' reasons. Why not release her now? If you continue to hold her under house arrest it will have an adverse effect on the reconciliation.

Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the 1991 Nobel Prize for Peace, was most recently detained May 30, 2003 after her motorcade was ambushed by government-backed mobs in Depayin during a political tour of Burma's northern provinces. Her house arrest expired Saturday, raising hopes she would be released.

The junta didn't issue a public statement but officials told reporters that the detention order had been extended for an unknown period.

Analysts said that while the junta might be preparing to release her in hope of winning an end to international sanctions, it would almost certainly wish to avoid doing so in the politically sensitive month of May.

Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition party won national elections on May 27, 1990, but the junta ignored the result. And May 30 marks the third anniversary of the 2003 killings in Depayin.

Last year, she spent her 60th birthday under military detention in a dilapidated two-storey family house under round-the-clock security patrols and encircled with barbed wire.

Supporters dismayed

Hopes grew for her release within her National League for Democracy (NLD) when the junta made the surprise decision to allow a visiting United Nations envoy to meet with her on May 20.

In an interview, NLD spokesman Myint Thein in Rangoon quoted the Burmese police chief as saying "Aung San Suu Kyi no longer has any political influence in the country and that releasing her would have no adverse effects on the country's security."

"But over the years the government has consistently jailed her and kept her under house arrest for 'security' reasons. Why not release her now? If you continue to hold her under house arrest it will have an adverse effect on the reconciliation," Myint Thein said.

In Washington, the United States condemned the decision and urged the regime to release all political prisoners.

"The United States condemns the extension of Aung San Suu Kyi's detention, yet another sign of the regime's intransigence and brutal repression," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. "We reiterate our call on the Burmese regime to release her and all other political prisoners, and engage in the genuine and inclusive dialogue needed to bring about national reconciliation and the establishment of democracy."

International pressure

NLD supporters overseas also voiced dismay.

Jeremy Woodrum, campaign director and co-founder of the US Campaign for Burma, urged the United Nations Security Council to “immediately take up the situation in Burma."

“They should do it regardless of whether she is released or not, but the fact that her detention has been extended does add one more reason for them to take immediate action,” he said.

“I have now helped to report on her release a total of six times and every time they release her, every time in the past they have either arrested her again, they’ve tried to kill her or they’ve killed her colleagues,” he said.

Burma expert and Rutgers University professor emeritus Joseph Silverstein said he regarded the junta as taking a stand against international pressure.

“They are saying to the world, ‘Aung San Suu Kyi is our problem and we will solve it,’” he said. “As long as the military can make it appear that they have taken an action without any coercion or response to the demands of the outside world, [her release] could happen” at a later time, he said.

Independence hero's daughter

“This woman continues to gain strength among the people,” he said. “If she is free, she will be a thorn in their side and better to keep her locked up than to allow that to happen for the third time.”

The United States and European Union members, as well as neighboring Thailand and Malaysia, have all urged the military government to free the Nobel peace laureate.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan added his voice to those calls Friday, appealing directly to junta leader Than Shwe for her release.

“I’m relying on you, General Than Shwe, to do the right thing,” Annan said in a statement in Bangkok. “Her release will facilitate national dialogue and allow the National League for Democracy (NLD) to participate in that dialogue.”

According to eyewitness testimonies recorded for RFA’s Burmese service, as many as 100 people died and an unknown number of women were raped during the May 30, 2003 violence, which witnesses say was planned by the junta in the northern township of Depayin.

The current group of generals in Burma has been in power since 1988 although the military has been in charge of the country since 1962. The junta called elections in 1990 but refused to step down when the NLD won.

Aung San Suu Kyi was born on June 19, 1945 in Rangoon. Daughter of prominent general and independence hero Aung San, who was slain in 1947, she has become the icon of the Burmese pro-democracy movement.

A devout Buddhist, she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for peaceful struggle against the military regime. In 1990 she was awarded the Rafto Prize and Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.

She is well-known for the opening lines of a speech titled “Freedom from Fear”: “It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.”

International support has grown during this her latest stint of house arrest, with rock bands and other celebrities writing songs for her and publicly adding their support.

Original reporting by RFA’s Burmese service in Bangkok and by David Beasley in Washington. Edited by Nancy Shwe. Written and produced for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie and Sarah Jackson-Han.


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