Burmese junta stops Suu Kyi boarding train to Mandalay

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The Independent Online

The Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was again prevented from leaving Rangoon yesterday, when security forces stopped her boarding a train for the country's second city, Mandalay, and arrested dozens of her supporters at the capital's main railway station.

The Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was again prevented from leaving Rangoon yesterday, when security forces stopped her boarding a train for the country's second city, Mandalay, and arrested dozens of her supporters at the capital's main railway station.

Suu Kyi and several colleagues from her National League for Democracy (NLD) party had sat for hours waiting to board one of four trains making the 12-hour trip north to Mandalay. But every one was declared full by the authorities. Blanket security was imposed around the station, and journalists and foreign diplomats, including a member of the British embassy staff, were barred from the building.

This latest attempt comes almost a month after the Nobel prize-winner's last effort to breach the tight travel restrictions imposed by the junta. That expedition, to the south of the country, got no further than a Rangoon suburb, where her convoy of cars was stopped by a massive police detachment. After being returned home she was placed under strict house arrest. Those curbs were lifted on 14 September, but yesterday's confrontation shows that the government has no intention of allowing Suu Kyi to carry her message outside the capital.

Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, condemned the travel ban last night, urging the generals to heed the democratic aspirations of the Burmese people. Dialogue, not repression, was the only way forward, he said. "The generals say they want a return to democracy, but we cannot believe them when they continually harry those who seek to exercise their democratic rights."

Burma's junta, which calls itself the State Peace and Development Council, took power in 1988 after bloodily suppressing a popular uprising, and refused to hand over power despite being defeated in a landslide by the newly formed NLD in 1990 elections. Since then, the military has spoken vaguely of returning the country to democracy, but has given no details of its plan, and no timetable.

After Suu Kyi's house arrest ended a week ago, tensions flared anew when the NLD announced it would draft a new constitution, and called for the immediate convening of a parliament and the release of all political prisoners. Under a 1996 law, anyone who tries to write a new constitution faces a ban from politics and imprisonment.

Accompanying these threats has been a sustained propaganda barrage in the government-controlled Burmese media, calling NLD and its founder "evil" and claiming they are in the pocket of foreigners, notably the British and Americans, bent on undermining the country. Anyone who tried to draft their own constitution "in line with the interests of the colonialists" was an enemy of the nation, one of the junta's most senior figures, Lt-Gen Tin Oo, has proclaimed.

Not surprisingly perhaps, heavy international pressure, including angry speeches by Tony Blair and President Bill Clinton at this month's Millennium summit at the United Nations, has failed even to dent the generals' intransigence.

The latest show of defiance came at the United Nations this week, when Win Aung, the Burma's Foreign Minister, told the General Assembly that Burma had been under "unfair scrutiny", while it was in the process of setting up a form of democracy "most suitable to the country, its people and its historical peculiarities". "Superficial and unsubstantiated charges" from the West would merely delay this process further, he said.

But the NLD has been backed by the Burma's main ethnic rebel group, the Karen National Union, which has been fighting since 1947 for greater regional autonomy. The Karens, who are ethnic Thais, have promised to lay down their arms if an NLD constitution guaranteeing minority rights comes into force.

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