Worldwide protests mark 12 years of Suu Kyi's detention

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The Independent Online

Activists around the world held protests against the Burmese regime yesterday, calling on the junta to free Aung San Suu Kyi. The campaigners targeted Chinese embassies in 12 cities, urging Beijing to pressure the Burmese authorities into releasing the imprisoned democracy leader.

The demonstrations came as Burma's military said it would allow the United Nations special envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, to return to the country for talks next month – slightly earlier than scheduled.

The UN human rights investigator Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, who was banned from Burma in 2003, has also been given permission to return.

The show of support for Ms Suu Kyi, who has spent 12 of the past 18 years in prison or under house arrest, took place in London, Dublin, Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Sydney, Washington, Toronto, New York, Brasilia, Bangkok and Cape Town. The aim was to maintain the focus on the situation in Burma after last month's protests involving thousands of Buddhist monks captured the world's attention so dramatically.

Kate Allen, the director of Amnesty International UK, said: "Because the pictures have stopped coming out of Burma, the media have turned away from this crisis. But the torture, the arrests and the killings go on. The international community must refocus on this crisis and the UN must do more than issue statements of concern."

Yesterday, Australia became the latest country to tighten the screw on the junta, announcing it had put into effect previously planned financial sanctions aimed at targeting members of the regime. "These new measures are designed to put further pressure on the regime and its supporters, while avoiding harm to the people of Burma," said the Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer.

In truth, however, Canberra's financial sanctions on 418 individuals, including senior military figures and ministers – along with similar measures announced by the US – will have little impact.

Campaigners say that China and, to a lesser extent, India are the only countries which can really hope to exert influence on Burma but both are anxious not to lose favour with the regime and miss out on lucrative oil and gas deals.

Mr Gambari hopes he can still persuade the regime to talk to Ms Suu Kyi. Officials have said they will meet the 62-year-old – but only if she and her National League for Democracy meet a number of pre-conditions, including an end to their criticism of the regime and support for international sanctions. So far, Ms Suu Kyi and the NLD have refused to accept the junta's demands.

Mr Gambari, who on his last visit met both Ms Suu Kyi and the senior general Than Shwe, is on a six-nation Asian tour to rally support in the region to put more pressure on Burma. He met officials in China yesterday and was told by the assistant foreign minister that Beijing would continue to give him its "all-out" support.

Speaking at yesterday's London rally, Zoya Phan, of the Burma Campaign UK, said: "The Burmese regime may be the jailer of Aung San Suu Kyi but China holds the key to her release."

Six female Nobel peace laureates – Jody Williams, Shirin Ebadi, Wangari Maathai, Rigoberta Menchu Tum, Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan Maguire – have jointly appealed to the UN, urging it to help Ms Suu Kyi regain her freedom. Yesterday, Burmese exiles in Norway said that the junta was still arresting NLD members, while some of those detained during last month's protests had been charged or freed.