Japan freezes aid payments to Burmese junta

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The Independent Online

Japan suspended financial aid to Burma yesterday as international pressure grew on the military junta to release the country's pro-democracy leader and Nobel laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi.

The announcement was made during a visit to Tokyo by the United Nations special envoy to Burma, Razali Ismail. Mr Razali said the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, was growing "increasingly alarmed" about the fate of Ms Suu Kyi. She was arrested on 30 May after supporters of her opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), clashed with government supporters at a rally in the north of the country.

In London, meanwhile, Tony Blair told Parliament that the Government was urging business to cease trading with Burma in protest against the plight of Ms Suu Kyi. Mr Blair said during Prime Minister's Questions: "We've made the strongest possible representations, not merely in respect of the release of the leader of the opposition but also on the restoration of proper human and democratic rights.

"In relation to British trade, we are making it clear to British companies that we do not believe that this is appropriate in circumstances where this regime continues to suppress the basic human rights of its people."

Attempts by Mike O'Brien, the Foreign Office minister, to obtain a phone number with which to communicate with the detained leader proved unsuccessful during a meeting in London yesterday afternoon with the Burmese ambassador, Dr Kway Win.

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, rammed home the message in the Financial Times, saying that an existing asset freeze, embargoes on arms and a suspension of high-level contact might be expanded.

The incarceration of Ms Suu Kyi, who is being held incommunicado, has hobbled efforts by Mr Razali to broker talks between the military junta and the NLD. The NLD, under Ms Suu Kyi's leadership, won elections by a landslide in 1990, but has never been allowed to take power.

Mr Razali urged both sides to resume contacts. "There should very quickly be efforts by all parties - government, the NLD and others - to start talking," he said at a news conference in Tokyo after talks with the Japanese Foreign Minister, Yoriko Kawaguchi. "It's only by sitting around the table that you could work out what would be the basis of the future political framework for Burma."

He also counselled caution to Ms Suu Kyi in the event that she is released, suggesting she desist from organising public rallies. "It may not be politic on her part in the future to do those things because you are just demonstrating ... your powerfulness. It is not exactly a very good idea," he said.

Mr Razali visited Rangoon on 10 June and was allowed to see Ms Suu Kyi. He is the only foreigner to have been granted access to her since her arrest. At the time, he told the Burmese authorities that the UN expected her to be released in one or two weeks.

"Well, two weeks have passed," he said. "They have assured me that she would be released soon. Some of them used the phrase 'as soon as things are normalised'. This does not assure me at all."

There is intense debate over the whereabouts of Ms Suu Kyi, who has just turned 58. The British Government has asserted that she, with 19 other party members, are inside the infamous Insein jail on the outskirts of Rangoon. Burma denied this yesterday.

The decision by Japan to halt aid may have a greater impact on the junta than British and US protests. Until now, Japan has been alone among major governments in trying to maintain some measure of normal relations with Rangoon in an effort to foster democratic reform. In 2001, the most recent year for which reliable figures are available, Japan gave Burma $78m (£46.5m) in development assistance. Before 1988, when the current military junta came to power, Japan was responsible for 60 per cent of all foreign aid to the country.