A sombre birthday for this Burmese heroine

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The Independent Online

Aung San Suu Kyi's 60th birthday tomorrow ought to be a time of celebration. But for Burma's democratically elected leader it will be another sombre day, as she has been under house arrest since May 2003 - imprisoned by the brutal clique of generals who control Burma.

Aung San Suu Kyi's 60th birthday tomorrow ought to be a time of celebration. But for Burma's democratically elected leader it will be another sombre day, as she has been under house arrest since May 2003 - imprisoned by the brutal clique of generals who control Burma.

This is an appropriate occasion to remember the sacrifices Ms Suu Kyi has made for the cause of Burmese democracy. She gave up a comfortable life in Britain to campaign in this ravaged enclave of south Asia. For 17 years she has had no contact with her family. When her husband died of cancer in 1999, she was cruelly denied a final reunion with him by the Burmese authorities.

Burma's rulers would no doubt like nothing better than for Ms Suu Kyi voluntarily to leave the country. But she refuses to do so, believing it is her duty to stay for the sake of the millions who voted for her in Burma's last democratic election in 1990. This, combined with her advocacy of peaceful struggle, makes her truly "Asia's Mandela".

This is also an appropriate occasion to examine the many crimes of the military junta that refuses to relinquish control of Burma. It is a regime characterised by repression and corruption. The indigenous tribes of the country, such as the Karen and the Shan, have long been persecuted; the drug trade is rampant; Burma's natural resources are being raped to shore up those in power. Any act of dissent is brutally put down. Burma is one of the most closed and suppressed nations on earth.

It is disgraceful that the plight of the Burmese people has not been a higher priority for the international community in recent years. The response from our leaders, since Ms Suu Kyi's latest arrest in 2003, has been weak. There have been few public statements to shame the Burmese rulers into reform. Nor have there been concerted attempts to persuade India, China, and other nations in the region to put pressure on their neighbour.

The question of sanctions is undeniably more difficult. The experience of Iraq shows that embargoes can hurt the very people they are intended to help. But economic sanctions should, nevertheless, be imposed in this case. The democratic Burmese opposition, like the ANC in the years of South African apartheid, supports this approach. And it is quite wrong that companies such as Total, the French oil firm, should be doing business with this regime. The EU should impose tough trade restrictions. If the EU will not act, Britain ought to impose sanctions unilaterally.

Tragically, there is little sign that the grip of the dictators is loosening. But that is no excuse for inaction. Demonstrations, like those yesterday outside Burmese embassies around the world, can help to maintain pressure on Rangoon. And efforts must continue to divert the lucrative stream of tourism. In some troubled parts of the world, tourist travel is to be encouraged. But this would be counterproductive in Burma, where slave labour is used to maintain the tourist infrastructure.

Burma is still trapped in its nightmare. Until the day it ends, it is the responsibility of the international community to remember the plight of Burma's people and to support its heroic leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.

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