Burma wages dirty tricks war against Suu Kyi

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The Independent Online

As the standoff between Burma's democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and the military junta entered its second week yesterday, the country's rulers tried to seize the propaganda initiative by turning to e-mail and its official website.

As the standoff between Burma's democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and the military junta entered its second week yesterday, the country's rulers tried to seize the propaganda initiative by turning to e-mail and its official website.

The Nobel peace laureate and head of the National League for Democracy (NLD) was pounced on on 24 August when she and a dozen colleagues tried to travel south of the capital, Rangoon, to meet party members. Their two cars were shunted into a lane and prevented from going further. Ms Suu Kyi refused to return to Rangoon. Tonight she will spend a ninth night in her car.

It is a rerun of events of two years ago, when Ms Suu Kyi tried to leave the capital and each time was stopped. Then, she remained in her car for 13 days before returning home on her doctor's advice.

The difference this time is that the junta has from the outset tried to control the way the confrontation has been seen abroad. In a country where the media are under rigid control, the only forum of effective protest is abroad.

Reporters have been prevented from visiting Ms Suu Kyi or contacting her in any way. The government has posted on its website photographs purporting to show the democracy activists living a life of ease during their vacation on the banks of the Yangon River.

The photos show people the junta claim to be Ms Suu Kyi's companions shopping, bringing supplies to the cars and bathing in the river. They are intended to rebut claims by NLD supporters in Rangoon that their leader and her companions are running short of food and water. Two years ago Ms Suu Kyi said she was forced to break her protest and return to Rangoon because the authorities starved her of supplies.

The government is banking on a picture being worth a thousand words, whatever its provenance. But there is no way of knowing whether the pictures are of what they claim to be. In the absence of independent corroboration, the only valid comment is: interesting if true. If not true - if the photos were staged, or taken in a different context - then Ms Suu Kyi and her companions could be in dire straits and no one might be any the wiser.

The outside world has continued mildly to chastise the junta for its treatment of Ms Suu Kyi. The United Nations secretary general, Kofi Annan, said in a statement that he was "increasingly concerned" about her welfare. The United States, the European Union and Canada have said they deplore the restrictions on her movement.

Burma will, as usual, curtly shrug off such impertinences. Slightly more worrying is the reaction of Thailand, its neighbour and partner in the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean), which said the stand-off may damage Asean's image and even scupper a meeting between Asean and EU foreign ministers planned for December.

Burma's state-run newspapers continued to ignore the confrontation, which has brought the country more international attention than at any time since the same thing happened two years ago.

As faxes and internet connections are fiercely restricted, and penalties for possessing them illegally run to many years in jail, it is probable that most Burmese believe Ms Suu Kyi has been spending the past week quietly at home.

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