Burmese junta extends the house arrest of Suu Kyi by yet another year

About 100 cheering supporters gathered near her house yesterday, hoping to see the 1991 Nobel Peace laureate, but dispersed after police told them she had not been freed. A government official said her detention had been extended for one year, despite a direct appeal by the United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, to the Burmese supremo, General Than Shwe.

Yesterday marked the 16th anniversary of a landslide victory by Ms Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy in a free election. It is also exactly three years since her motorcade was ambushed by government-backed thugs in Depayin.

Optimism had been stirred when the UN's under-secretary for political affairs, Ibrahim Gambari, was allowed to visit Ms Suu Kyi last weekend, the first time she had seen an outsider for two years. But a Western diplomat in Rangoon told The Independent on Sunday that he was unsurprised by the junta's actions. "The problem is that there is no dialogue yet," he said. "Suu Kyi's release needs to be the culmination of any re-engagement efforts, not the start. If she is let go and big crowds come to hear her message, the generals will freak out and the same old cycles will start anew. That's what happened last time."

Ms Suu Kyi's oratory attracted rapturous crowds for a few months in 2002-03, until the generals jailed her again "for her own protection". Last week's manoeuvrings are believed to have been designed to distract from their brutal ethnic cleansing campaign against Karen villagers in the south-east of the country.

The junta has launched its biggest military offensive in years, with an estimated 16,000 people forced to flee from their homes and widespread reports of killings and torture as villages are burned and food stocks destroyed.

Ms Suu Kyi, who turns 61 next month, is accustomed to a solitary life under house arrest. She has been locked away for 10 of the past 17 years by the same generals who crushed the pro-democracy movement in 1988.

More than 1,100 other political prisoners remain locked inside Burma's primitive jails. In the country's spy-ridden cities, anyone heard criticising the authorities can be seized by police and forcibly disappeared.