Britain to demand action on Burma

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Britain will today demand the European Union takes international action against Burma's military regime, afterfurther arrests and repressive tactics at the weekend which threatened to destroy the country's fragile democracy movement.

The ruling military government banned the opposition leader and Nobel peace prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, from giving a speech to a three- day opposition party congress. The authorities also cut off access to her Rangoon home and arrested about 500 people.

The EU's "political directors" - senior foreign ministry officials from the 15 member countries - will meet today in Brussels. The Foreign Office declined to say what precise action the EU might take.

"In trade terms we only sell about pounds 15m worth of stuff to Burma a year," one Foreign Office source said. Instead, Britain hopes to stimulate further international pressure from EU members and, more importantly from Burma's neighboursin the region.

Diplomatic sources yesterday said they doubted whether the Burmese government would detain Ms Suu Kyi, who was released from six years of house arrest in July 1995, but would try to marginalise her and restrict media coverage.

The Burmese government, run by the State Law and Order Restoration Council (Slorc), said it had detained 109 members of Ms Suu Kyi's National League of Democracy as part of an operation intended to prevent the party's weekend meeting from taking place.

It set up police checkpoints on all roads leading to Ms Suu Kyi's home in University Avenue, Rangoon, where the meeting was due to be held, and stopped anyone using the road from Friday morning onwards.

Although the checkpoints were due to come down on Sunday, they were still there yesterday. A number of people heading for the meeting, held to celebrate the eighth anniversary of the NLD's foundation, were detained briefly.

About 500 NLD members have been held since Thursday, and a group of foreign journalists, including three television crews and two photographers, were detained at their hotel in the street overlooking Ms Suu Kyi's house.

"The UK believes it will be necessary to take further international action against the Slorc. We will be proposing possible measures to EU partners," the Foreign Office said yesterday.

"We deplore Slorc actions preventing Aung San Suu Kyi from delivering her weekend speech. Restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly are a breach of basic human rights."

The NLD was founded by Ms Suu Kyi in August 1988 following months of demonstrations against military rule. It won a resounding victory in the 1990 general election but the military government never recognised the results.

The most recent crackdown on the opposition took place in May, when about 260 politicians and activists were arrested. Most were released, but a score were convicted and given lengthy prison sentences.