Desmond Tutu: Together, we can join forces to make Burma the new South Africa

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The Independent Online

In 1988, Nelson Mandela reached his 70th birthday. He was languishing in prison, having already spent 26 years locked up by the apartheid regime in South Africa. In Wembley Stadium some of the world's greatest entertainers - Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton, Sting, Annie Lennox and George Michael performed for a political prisoner whose face the world hadn't seen for a quarter of a century.

In 1988, Nelson Mandela reached his 70th birthday. He was languishing in prison, having already spent 26 years locked up by the apartheid regime in South Africa. In Wembley Stadium some of the world's greatest entertainers - Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton, Sting, Annie Lennox and George Michael performed for a political prisoner whose face the world hadn't seen for a quarter of a century.

The apartheid regime was left in no doubt that Mandela and the struggle he represented were in the ascendant. At the same time, on the other side of the planet, an uprising of epic proportions was taking place - but with no global audience to bear witness.

In Burma millions were taking to the streets in a massive display of defiance against a brutal military dictatorship. The regime reacted. It killed thousands in an orgy of violence against its own people.

From this political landscape emerged Burma's own Mandela, in the form of the powerfully charismatic woman Aung San Suu Kyi. She will be 60 tomorrow. On that day she will have spent nine years and 238 days in detention.

In Mandela's Rivonia trial, he said a free South Africa was "an ideal for which I am prepared to die". Suu Kyi, a fellow Nobel Peace laureate, has the same determination. In May 2003, during a brief period of freedom, she toured Burma. Despite massive intimidation, thousands gathered to hear her talk. She was arrested and has been in detention ever since.

As with the ANC in South Africa under apartheid, the NLD has called for economic sanctions against the regime. Only the US has responded. The EU has imposed a few symbolic measures. During the struggle against apartheid, musicians, trade unionists, churches, teachers and students showed what we can do here in the UK against tyranny miles away. South Africa is now a democracy. We can make Burma the next South Africa. If such a coalition could be mustered for Suu Kyi, the result could be as glorious. Burma would have a leader whose commitment to her people is unwavering. Asia and the world would have one of those rare leaders whose integrity and vision is already proven by her courage and sacrifice.

I make a direct call here, to the friends who fought against apartheid South Africa, to help support the people of Burma. Suu Kyi says: "I have stopped hoping for anything for myself - but I certainly hope for a lot of things for Burma. I hope for the kind of change that will enable our people to realise their full potential. I hope for the sort of change that will make Burma a truly happy and progressive place and a country that can actively contribute towards the betterment of the world.

"My life," she says, "is the cause for democracy and I'm linked to everyone else in that cause." I think that means you, and that means all of us.

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