Myanmar junta keeps democracy leader Suu Kyi a prisoner

Sunday, May 28, 2006

YANGON, Myanmar -- Flouting world opinion and a direct appeal from the head of the United Nations, Myanmar's ruling junta on Saturday extended the house arrest of pro-democracy leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

The junta issued an order extending Suu Kyi's detention by another year, said a Myanmar government official who insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. No public announcement was made.

The government's rationale for detaining Suu Kyi has been that she could be a threat to public order. Now 60, she has been detained for about 10 of the last 17 years.

A statement from Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party confirmed the extension, but did not specify its duration.

Suu Kyi has spent the last three years under tight restriction, with virtually no access to outsiders. Her nonviolent work to promote democracy won her the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, visiting neighboring Thailand, appealed Friday to Myanmar junta chief Senior Gen. Than Shwe "to do the right thing" and free Suu Kyi to "allow the government and the people, not only to build the nation together, but to focus on the essential issue of economic and social development."

Annan was traveling and not available to comment Saturday.

Suu Kyi was most recently taken into custody on May 30, 2003, after her motorcade was attacked by a pro-junta mob during a political tour of northern Myanmar. She has been held at her Yangon residence and not allowed visitors or telephone contact with the outside.

Her last confinement order, issued in November last year, was to expire Saturday, and recent diplomatic moves had raised hopes she might be released.

A visit here last week by U.N. Undersecretary-General Ibrahim Gambari -- who became the first foreigner in more than two years to see Suu Kyi -- had fueled optimism. Gambari also was granted a rare audience with Than Shwe.

The failure to release Suu Kyi disappointed both diplomats working to ease Myanmar's political deadlock, and sympathizers of Myanmar's pro-democracy movement.

In Malaysia, which has been trying to nudge the junta into accelerating the transition to democracy, Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar said he was "very surprised."

"I was hoping ... that they would not extend the house arrest. But that is their right. Of course, we are disappointed," Syed Hamid told reporters.

European Parliament member Glenys Kinnock renewed calls for a U.N. Security Council resolution against the junta, telling BBC Radio 4 that without one the junta "will continue to grandstand to the international community and use her as a trump card."

The junta took power in 1988 after crushing vast pro-democracy demonstrations in the country formerly known as Burma. In 1990, it refused to hand over power when Suu Kyi's party won a landslide victory in general elections.

Since then, the United States and many Western nations have shunned the junta because of its poor human rights record and failure to hand over power.

In Yangon, about 200 Suu Kyi supporters gathered Saturday afternoon at a roadblock about 150 yards from her cordoned-off residence in hope of seeing her released.

They shouted in her honor but dispersed peacefully after police told them she had not been freed.

Her party late Saturday issued a statement characterizing the junta's action as unlawful.

Noting that she is being held under an anti-subversion law, it said: "Since there is no proof of security threat, the extension of her detention is not in accordance with national law and the extension will not benefit the national reconciliation process."

Suu Kyi's eloquence, iron will and popularity have made her a dangerous rival in the eyes of the military.

Even before the 1990 election proved her party's popularity, she and several close colleagues were detained on trumped-up national security charges in an effort to fend off their challenge.

She won her Nobel prize while under house arrest but neither the election victory nor her award moved the military. She was held until 1995, and the military refused to hand over power to her party, instead stepping up harassment and arrests of its members.

The ruling generals insist they are guiding the country back to democratic rule. But there are few signs that they are willing to pick up the pace of their self-proclaimed road map for democracy, which calls for a constitution and free elections -- at some unspecified point in the future.

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