Burma locks door on Suu Kyi's hopes of freedom

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The Independent Online

Hopes that Burma's icon of democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi, would emerge from detention have been quashed.

Burmese army officers were seen entering the compound of the opposition leader late yesterday, and a source close to the regime said her house arrest in Rangoon, due to expire today, would be extended. But there was no official confirmation, nor any indication of how much longer she would be detained.

A group of people gathered near the home of Ms Suu Kyi, a Nobel peace laureate, last night, hoping to celebrate her freedom. Sources said more than two dozen people kept a vigil just beyond the razor wire cordon around Ms Suu Kyi's residence. One Rangoon expatriate said "expectations were running high" that the ruling military dictatorship would not renew her house arrest order.

Ms Suu Kyi, the daughter of the Burmese independence hero, General Aung San, has been locked up for 10 of the past 17 years. Leaders from the National League for Democracy (NLD) - Ms Suu Kyi's political party - mingled with students, rights activists and diplomats from China and America. Many had hoped to be in place after midnight to welcome the 60-year-old dissident back to the world beyond her garden gate.

According to The Irrawaddy, a Burmese exile magazine published in Chiang Mai, Thailand, plainclothes police circulated among the crowd, and unconfirmed reports said riot police were on call to beef up security.

Hopes for the release of Ms Suu Kyi and more than 1,100 other political prisoners were rekindled a week ago when Ibrahim Gambari, a top UN envoy, was allowed to meet Burma's most prominent prisoner of conscience for 45 minutes in Rangoon. Earlier that day, Mr Gambari conferred with the junta's supremo, General Than Shwe, in the new Burmese capital near Pyinmana.

In Bangkok yesterday the United Nations secretary general, Kofi Annan, urged General Shwe to "do the right thing". "I take this opportunity to appeal to General Than Shwe and the government to release her, " he said. "For the democratic process and the reconciliation process to be truly successful, it has to be inclusive and she has a role to play."

The NLD won a landslide victory in elections held 16 years ago, but was prevented from taking control. Last year, Ms Suu Kyi's party boycotted a constitutional convention that would have legitimised military rule. Under the junta's guidelines, fresh elections would be postponed for four or five years.

Ms Suu Kyi has been detained "for her own protection" since May 2003, when a mob attacked her convoy on the way to a rally in central Burma. The junta characterised this as an assassination attempt, but a International Red Cross report concluded that government-hired thugs had instigated the violence.

Under pressure, many members resigned from the NLD this year after ministers linked it to terrorism, although no evidence was cited. There were rumours that the junta would outlaw the party altogether.

Burma's police chief said freeing Ms Suu Kyi would not present security problems because support for her was waning. "I think there will not be rallies or riots if Suu Kyi is released," said Police Major-General Khin Yi on Tuesday. "Our police force can handle everything."

Economic sanctions imposed after Ms Suu Kyi's arrest in 2003 have had little effect, partly because China, India, Thailand and other countries persist in business as usual with the military regime. Russia and China have questioned whether Burma's intransigence is a threat to international peace and security.

Analysts suggested that these trading partners have nudged the generals into making a gesture that they are serious about political reform.

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