On her 58th birthday, The Lady of Burma languishes in jail, a martyr to her people's fight for democracy

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The Independent Online

A guard paced to and fro outside Aung San Suu Kyi's dingy two-room hut at Insein prison near Rangoon where the martyr of Burma's pro-democracy movement turned 58 yesterday.

No birthday amnesty was on offer for the tortured nation's "Titanium Orchid", who has spent the past 14 years facing down the brutal regime of the generals who rule the country. For three weeks they have held her in "protective custody" despite worldwide protests.

Ms Suu Kyi has suffered as a martyr for her country's still-born democracy, which was snuffed out in 1990 after her election victory was ignored by the military junta. She was jailed and her political party, the National League for Democracy, banned.

Under house arrest for almost eight years, she denied herself even a chance to visit her husband Michael Aris on his deathbed in England for fear of being forced into permanent exile.

Ms Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, endured the loneliness of her years of house arrest through Buddhist meditation and playing classical piano, but her political supporters have had to contend with the full rage of the military.

Burma's generals, who run one of the world's most cruel dictatorships, will not be cowed by protests and the talk of sanctions from Western governments. They already enjoy close business links across much of Asia and investment is booming.

European Union heads of state, meeting near the Greek city of Thesaloniki, were silent last night on Ms Suu Kyi's fate, with no mention of sanctions.

The US is unambiguous in its condemnation of Burma, which it describes as a place where there is "no real freedom of speech, press, assembly, association, or travel" and where security forces regularly monitor citizens' movements and communications, search homes without warrants, and relocate persons forcibly without just compensation or legal recourse.

But as in Europe, there is no talk in Washington bringing about "regime change" in Burma. Rather it has been left to Congress to make the running in drafting modest sanctions.

Rangoon is dotted with new hotels and infrastructure projects built with forced labour with Asian investment funds. A pipeline owned by Western oil companies is brutally protected by the Burmese military, whose pitiless exploitation of the population as porters and labourers is well documented.

Yesterday supporters in London and around the world held vigils demanding that Burma's dictator, Than Shwe, release Ms Suu Kyi immediately. Demands which fell on deaf ears.

A day after he described Burma's leaders as "brutal thugs", the birthday greetings of the US Secretary State Colin Powell to Ms Suu Kyi were also brushed aside.

Grinning nervously at a summit of Asean ministers in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Burma's Foreign Minister Win Aung, protested: "We are not a brutal people. If we were brutal, there would be signs of brutality all across the country."

The junta was holding Ms Suu Kyi to protect her against potential assassins, he claimed.

In London the Foreign Office minister, Mike O'Brien, expressed his anger when the Burmese authorities blocked his attempts to telephone Ms Suu Kyi on her birthday.

Three weeks after an NLD rally north-west of Mandalay ended in an ambush and massacre in which at least 70 of Ms Suu Kyi's supporters are said to have died, the opposition leader is wearing the same blouse and skirt in which she was arrested.

In Rangoon yesterday, where followers refer to her simply as "the Lady", not daring to be overheard by government stooges, there were no public demonstrations of loyalty. Party offices are padlocked across the nation, activists who are not jailed have gone into hiding. Universities and colleges were reopened this week for the first time since her arrest, but a tight lid is being kept on student dissent. Exiles say that things have not been this tense since the 1988 student uprisings, when soldiers slaughtered thousands of unarmed demonstrators demanding democracy.

Their litany of complaints against the self-styled Myanmar government is long: the nation is resource-rich but utterly impoverished and isolated because of mismanagement. The regime is reviled for allowing drug traffickers to move opium and methamphetamines across the Golden Triangle. It deploys child soldiers, condones torture and rape, and builds the tourist infrastructure with forced labour.

Human Rights Watch has documented how tens of thousands of villagers in central and northern Burma faced curfews, looting, and restrictions on movement at the hands of the army. Tens of thousands of other villagers in eastern and south-eastern Burma are displaced in the jungle where the army has been fighting insurgent groups.

Released from house arrest 13 months ago, Ms Suu Kyi remained a thorn in the side of the military. She called for a tourist boycott of the country's golfcourses and hotels, built on the back of indentured labour.

In releasing her, Than Shwe miscalculated. He had assumed that the NLD was a spent force. He was galled by the rapturous reception she got on her tour upcountry when tens of thousands of listeners came to her rallies. He also anticipated more rewards from the international community for letting Ms Suu Kyi speak again. He believed the US and the European Union would lift sanctions.