A time to remember Burma and challenge the junta's repression

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The Independent Online

Fifteen years may not be a long time in the history of a country with roots as ancient as those of Burma. For the people of that benighted land, however, it must seem a very long time indeed. This is how many years Burma has been deprived of the democracy for which it voted so overwhelmingly in May 1990. The anniversary of that inspiring and ill-fated election falls next week.

Fifteen years may not be a long time in the history of a country with roots as ancient as those of Burma. For the people of that benighted land, however, it must seem a very long time indeed. This is how many years Burma has been deprived of the democracy for which it voted so overwhelmingly in May 1990. The anniversary of that inspiring and ill-fated election falls next week.

Next month contains another, no less symbolic, date: the 60th birthday of Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of the assassinated head of Burma's first post-war government and the woman who led the victorious National League for Democracy campaign through that 1990 election. In many countries of the world, 60 is the age at which a woman would qualify for her pension. Ms Suu Kyi is likely to pass her birthday still under the house arrest she has endured on and off for most of the past 16 years. The latest extension, declared by the military junta last year, means that she will remain out of circulation at least until October. Experience raises few hopes that she will be released even then.

But there is another prediction that can surely be made about Ms Suu Kyi's arrival at pensionable age. After devoting the best part of her life to fighting by peaceful means for democracy in Burma, she is most unlikely to abandon her mission now. She has already sacrificed so much: her comfortable life in the West, her family, and the husband to whom she was not permitted to bid farewell, even as he lay dying in Britain. She has always seen her first duty as being to Burma.

The past 15 years have not been completely without the occasional flicker of optimism. Three years ago, Ms Suu Kyi was released and travelled the country, campaigning. But once she started to criticise the junta directly for refusing to start the political talks they had promised, she was re-arrested "for her own protection" after a series of provocations and attacks.

When Lieutenant General Soe Win was made prime minister last year, and placed his predecessor under arrest, the expectations were that he would quash these first tentative shoots of reform. In the event, he released several thousand prisoners, including leading dissidents. Aung San Suu Kyi, however, was not among them. The word was that the purge within the junta was the culmination of a power struggle in which those who supported gradual reconciliation with Ms Suu Kyi were defeated.

The re-arrest of this heroic campaigner for democracy in Burma elicited statements of condemnation from around the world that were just as swift and forceful as the fury that had greeted her initial detention in 1989 and the abortive election. They brought a toughening of the EU's trade and investment embargo and, for almost the first time, severe condemnation from the US. The high level of international interest in Aung San Suu Kyi's fate may be one reason why she has survived and has been confined to house arrest rather than prison.

The fact that Ms Suu Kyi is still detained, however, and that the prospect of democratic elections still seems as remote as ever also shows the limits to what this degree of foreign intervention has been able to achieve. The sanctions are neither as tough nor as watertight as they could be. What is more, efforts to shame Burma in public statements and international forums are still far too timid and inconsistent. Of all the repressive regimes that cry out for sustained attention from the US and its allies, Burma must be near the top of the list.

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