Suu Kyi marks birthday amid fears for her health

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The Independent Online

The Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi marks her 61st birthday today, still under house arrest in her decaying villa on Rangoon's Inya lake, as fears grow that Burma's military junta is deliberately depriving her of medical care.

Protests at her continuing imprisonment were staged over the weekend in dozens of countries around the world.

Earlier this month a Burmese exile group in the United States reported that Suu Kyi had been rushed to hospital with a stomach complaint. Later Burma's police chief, Major-General Khin Yi, denied the report, saying she had been suffering from diarrhoea and had received treatment from her doctor at home.

But the truth was more unsettling. On 8 May she reported that she was suffering from acute stomach pains, but her doctor was only given permission to visit her the next day. She was also refused permission to go to hospital for treatment - hence the treatment at home.

Her condition today is a matter of hope and speculation. Her telephones are cut, her mail is blocked. It is claimed that she regularly sees her maid, her maid's daughter and a gardener, but even these details are not certain. It is said that she spends much of the day meditating and keeping fit, but this, too, is only hearsay. What is beyond doubt is her total isolation both from other leaders of her political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), and from her family, including her grown-up sons Alexander and Kim who live in the West.

If she were to fall dangerously ill, her fate would be entirely in the hands of the junta, the State Peace and Development Council, which three years ago mounted a bold and well-organised bid to murder her. Around 100 members of her party were killed when the convoy in which she was travelling was attacked on 30 May 2003 in the north Burmese village of Depayin. Suu Kyi only escaped with her life thanks to her driver, Ko Kyaw Soe Lin, but she was subsequently arrested and locked up in Rangoon's notorious Insein Prison.

In September of the same year she underwent a hysterectomy operation in hospital, after which she was once again confined to her home, as she had been prior to her release in May 2002.

In all Aung San Suu Kyi has spent 3888 days under house arrest in the past 17 years. Her confinement was last month extended by the junta for another year, only days after Kofi Annan's special envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, raised hopes that discussions about her release were imminent. In her hour-long meeting with Mr Gambari last month, before her recent health scare, she took the highly unusual step of raising the issue of her health and medical care - questions which in the past she has dismissed as insignificant. Mr Gambari reported her as saying "She visits by her doctor to be more predictable and regular."

Meanwhile the international community's efforts to pressure Burma to free Suu Kyi and enact democratic change continue to move forward at a glacial pace. Last year former Czech dissident and president Vaclav Havel and Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa commissioned a report on Burma by a top US law firm which persuaded the US government that, contrary to previous analyses, Burma posed a threat to international peace and stability and should be condemned as such by the UN Security Council.

On May 31 Security Council members were briefed on the Burma issue, only the second time the subject has been discussed at this level, and the US made clear that it wanted a UN resolution that reflects international concern over the policies of Burma's military rulers. But China, Russia and Japan said they disagreed with the US view.

"It is a huge step forward that the Security Council is now the place where Burma is discussed," commented Yvette Mahon, director of Burma Campaign UK, "but we need action, not just more discussions... We call on all Security Council members to support a resolution on Burma." The Burmese junta has ignored 28 resolutions by the UN General Assembly and Human Rights Commission and more than a dozen calls for Suu Kyi's release by the secretary-general himself.