Joan Smith: Another bloody birthday

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The Independent Online

The most famous woman in Burma will spend her 60th birthday today as she spends most days - under house arrest in a compound in University Avenue, Rangoon.

Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy, won a landslide victory in a general election 15 years ago and the Nobel Peace Prize a year later, but she has spent most of her time since then under various forms of arrest. She is one of more than 1,350 political prisoners in Burma, detained by a regime that an exiled Burmese writer, Pascal Khoo Thwe, described to me last week as "Pol Pot's Cambodia in slow motion".

"He did it within three or four years," Khoo Thwe told me. "The Burmese junta has been doing it for more than 30 years. Most people in Burma are focused on survival. There is not enough food to eat. There is an atmosphere of fear worse than Orwell's 1984."

In a new report, Amnesty International confirms that prisoners are routinely arrested and held without warrant, held incommunicado, and tortured or ill-treated in pre-trial detention. The organisation's list of prisoners includes a wide section of Burmese society, from students and politicians to doctors, lawyers and housewives.

Many are elderly, such as Aung San Suu Kyi's deputy, 77-year-old U Tin U, who has been under house arrest since May 2003; or U Shwe Ohn, 82, a lawyer placed under house arrest after taking part in a political meeting in February this year.

One of the most harrowing cases is that of U Win Tin, 75, a newspaper editor and adviser to Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been held in appalling conditions since 1989. He suffers from diabetes, spondylitis and high blood pressure, exacerbated by sleeping for protracted periods in a cell designed as a kennel for military dogs. His initial sentence was increased after he was found guilty of distributing a clandestine magazine in prison and possessing radio sets; he is not due to be released for four years, months from his 80th birthday.

In such circumstances, it is hardly surprising that one million refugees have fled Burma, some to neighbouring countries, such as India and Thailand, others further afield; there are now more Burmese doctors in London, Khoo Thwe says, than in the whole of their native country. He fled in 1988 after witnessing the savage repression of a student uprising at Mandalay University, during which his girlfriend was killed. Khoo Thwe spent a year in the jungle with the rebels, where he saw Burmese soldiers using helpless villagers as "landmine sweepers", before crossing the border into Thailand. He made his way to Cambridge where he studied for six years and eventually wrote his prize-winning book, From The Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey.

The EU has responded to Burma's flagrant human rights abuses by imposing a selective visa ban on members of the junta, as well as very limited sanctions.

In spite of its size and importance - Burma has a population of 50 million and abundant natural resources, most squandered by economic mismanagement - the country has never been at the top of the international agenda.

Its neighbours continue to trade with the junta, although the flood of opium across its borders - Burma is the world's second-largest supplier of heroin after Afghanistan - is not so welcome.

"The junta has been 16 years in power and nobody is really pushing them hard," Khoo Thwe told me. "We need some political will from the international community."

Amnesty has called on the euphemistically named State Peace and Development Council to put an end to human rights abuses; it is also asking people to mark Aung San Suu Kyi's birthday by adding their names to an online petition, which can be reached on the organisation's website (www.amnesty.org).

In the meantime, the woman widely regarded as the mother of her nation will pass another day alone, with only her cook and her doctor allowed to visit her.

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