Unable or unwilling to provide emergency aid to the hundreds of thousands of its people left homeless and desperate after Cyclone Nargis, the Burmese regime made it a priority yesterday to ensure the country's most prominent citizen remains under house arrest.
A government official said the detention of Aung San Suu Kyi – who has already spent almost 13 of the past 18 years imprisoned – has been extended by another year. The Nobel peace laureate was informed of the decision by officials who visited the Rangoon house that has become her jail.
Suu Kyi has spent all of the past five years under house arrest having been detained most recently in May 2003, for "her own protection". Her supporters say that, under Burmese law, no one may be detained for more than five years and the opposition leader's term of imprisonment cannot legally be extended.
"The Burmese junta's extension of Aung San Suu Kyi's house arrest in clear violation of its own law comes as no surprise," Jared Genser, a US lawyer hired by her family, told the Associated Press. "Adherence to the rule of law is not their forte and the junta remains deeply concerned about her appeal to the Burmese people."
With worldwide attention focused on Burma in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis and with millions of pounds worth of aid being pledged by various countries, some observers may have allowed themselves a flicker of hope that the head of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party would be set free.
But the regime made clear its intentions yesterday morning when it arrested up to 20 NLD members who had tried to march from their Rangoon headquarters to Suu Kyi's lakeside house. Photographs showed the supporters being escorted away in police trucks in the rain.
The decision to keep the 62-year-old imprisoned highlights her unique position in Burma to rally the people against the military junta that has led the country since 1988.
In 1990, her NLD won a landslide victory in an election that the regime chose to ignore and though some Burmese activists – both inside and outside of the country – may not agree with everything she says, the level of her support remains unparalleled.
"The generals are feeling confident and are under no significant pressure to release Aung San Suu Kyi," said Mark Farmaner, of the Burma Campaign UK. "Promised sanctions following the uprising last year were not implemented; they broke their word on talks with Aung San Suu Kyi with no consequences; and now the UN secretary general has visited Burma twice and dared not even utter her name."
The Foreign Secretary David Miliband said he was "saddened, if not surprised" by the decision to continue her detention. "While our immediate focus is on relieving the suffering caused by the recent cyclone, restoration of democracy in Burma is still vital for that country's long-term future," he said. "I urge the Burmese government to release Aung San Suu Kyi and allow her to play her rightful role in the process of genuine national reconciliation."
Yesterday also marked the 18th anniversary of the 1990 election which saw the NLD secure 392 of the 492 available seats. About 200 NLD members held a meeting at their offices in Rangoon and called on the junta to release her.
In addition to holding a minute's silence for those killed by Cyclone Nargis they also chanted Suu Kyi's name and shouted: "Release her immediately."
At least 130,000 people are believed to have been killed by the tropical storm that struck Burma's Irrawaddy Delta region three weeks ago. The regime has been widely condemned for its slow and unconvincing efforts to provide aid to those in need. There were reports that the military was hoarding the best quality donated food for itself. There was also criticism that aid workers were being refused proper access to the worst-hit areas.Reuse content