Suu Kyi stopped by Burmese police

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The Independent Online

The Burmese democracy leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was preparing to spend a second night in her car yesterday, after police stopped her travelling from Rangoon to a nearby town.

The Burmese democracy leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was preparing to spend a second night in her car yesterday, after police stopped her travelling from Rangoon to a nearby town.

The 55-year-old head of the National League for Democracy (NLD), who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, left her home in the suburbs of Rangoon on Thursday. She was intending to drive to Kungyangon, 50km away. After her car, and another carrying party members, crossed the Rangoon river by ferry they were stopped by uniformed and plainclothes police, who prevented them from going any further.

Journalists were kept away, but it was reported that two lorries were blocking the cars from moving off and, as well as a number of police, an ambulance was standing by. A spokesman for the NLD said yesterday: "They are running short of food and water."

In Rangoon, the military government said it had stopped Ms Suu Kyi from travelling for her own protection, because her journey did not have "proper security arrangements". A Western diplomat said: "Suu Kyi's political standing and support in the country are still very high, which is why the government wants to restrict her movements."

The Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, said: "We deplore this action. To restrict leaders of a democratic political party from moving around the country is a denial of fundamental human and political rights."

Ms Suu Kyi has been fighting Burma's brutal military junta, these days known as the State Peace and Development Council, for more than 10 years.

In May 1990, in Burma's first free elections since the military takeover in 1962, her partygained more than 80 per cent of the seats, while the junta's candidates won only 10 constituencies. The generals responded by annulling the elections and conducting a campaign of harassment, intimidation and legal persecution against the democrats. It continues to this day.

A fortnight ago Aye Tha Aung, a colleague of Ms Suu Kyi in the NLD and the secretary of the "proxy parliament" set up by the party, was sentenced to 21 years in prison after a secret trial. The charges have not been made public.

Yesterday's impasse was a replay of events two years ago when Ms Suu Kyi repeatedly tried to travel beyond the capital and was repeatedly prevented from doing so. In August 1998 she was stopped while trying to reach Pathein in the Irrawaddy delta and in protest stayed in her car for six days. Police finally brought her back to Rangoon by force. Later that month, after yet another journey had been frustrated, she stayed in her car for 13 days before returning home on her doctor's advice.

The junta, formerly known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council,has tried hard to wipe out the force for democracy that Ms Suu Kyi represents, but her worldwide fame has obliged them to tread with a modicum of care. Between 1989 and 1995 she was kept under house arrest. Since then she has been allowed to move between her home and the party's headquarters in Rangoon, but not further afield.

The campaign to damage or remove her continues. An article in a government-controlled newspaper, The Mirror, in May claimed there was evidence that Ms Suu Kyi maintained contact with "dissidents and armed terrorist groups". If so, the paper went on, it amounted to "high treason" for which "Suu Kyi and her accomplices could face the death penalty or life imprisonment".

Occasionally, the government's campaign pays dividends as when, earlier this year, 25 NLD members signed a letter calling for a dialogue with the junta. Ms Suu Kyi denounced the letter and attacked three party members who she described as its "instigators". They "have now become lackeys of the military intelligence", she went on, and were attempting "to sow disunity" within the party.

Holding together an opposition party in such circumstances, with the entire force of the state including all the media ranged against her, is a formidable task, which probably explains why Ms Suu Kyi has once again tried to defy the authorities' travel ban.