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Richard Ehrlich: Aung San Suu Kyi's 60th Birthday

No Celebration For Aung San Suu Kyi's 60th Birthday

by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- The world's most famous political prisoner, Burma's Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, will not be celebrating a happy birthday on Sunday (June 19) when she turns 60, because she is locked under house arrest.

Suu Kyi -- pronounced "Soo Chee" -- languishes behind spiked gates which guard her spacious garden and tranquil, two-story, lakeside villa in Rangoon, the capital of impoverished Burma.

In what has become depressingly routine, the U.S. State Department and other monitors reiterated their condemnation of Burma for its grim human rights record.

London-based Amnesty International said at least 1,350 political prisoners are locked up in the Southeast Asian country.

To score diplomatic points, the regime occasionally releases some inmates, but later arrests more dissidents.

Suu Kyi has spent more than nine of the past 16 years in detention.

Her latest sentence of house arrest began on May 30, 2003 after deadly clashes erupted between government supporters and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party sympathizers.

The unelected regime says it keeps her away from the public to ensure she will not be assassinated, and to keep Burma safe from brawls between supporters and opponents of the military government.

Suu Kyi insists the government fears her overwhelming popularity after she led her NLD party to a nationwide, landslide victory in a 1990 election, which the military regime ignored.

The thin, demure politician is usually referred to simply as "The Lady" -- because mentioning her name aloud could result in unwanted attention by ubiquitous plain clothed police and informants who eavesdrop on Burma's majority Buddhist, yet sinisterly Orwellian, society.

"It is hereby declared, that effective November 27, 2004, the authorities have extended, for one more year, the house arrest imposed on the National League for Democracy Secretary-General, 'Daw' Aung San Suu Kyi, under Section 10b of the Law Safeguarding the State from the Dangers of Subversive Elements," the frustrated NLD said at the time.

American and European economic sanctions against Rangoon -- designed to push the junta toward democracy -- have also punished workers in Burma's garment industry and other labor-intensive sectors, which now have problems exporting their goods abroad.

With no immediate solution in sight, Burma's woes are expected to worsen despite international praise for Suu Kyi, who has suffered health problems and difficulty in preventing squabbles within her skeletal NLD party.

"Despite her reputation among many as a saint, she has no power to manipulate the government, and serves more as a figurehead than a viable opposition leader," said an editorial in the Burmese exile community's respected, Thailand-based Irrawaddy magazine, which receives U.S.-government funding.

"Aging opposition leaders refuse to acknowledge the ideas of younger party members -- even expelling them," said the magazine which seeks an end to Burma's military rule.

Burmese rallying cries for democracy are now made only by those in self-exile.

"I left Burma in 2003 because I was afraid I would be sentenced for the third time," said San San, an elected NLD Member of Parliament, in an interview on Thursday (June 16) in Bangkok.

San San said she had already served five years in jail for "high treason" because she demanded democracy and supported Suu Kyi.

"Our election result was not honored by the junta, but we Members of Parliament tried to set up a federal government," San San said.

"The future is not bright. I don't think the Burmese people can do anything now, because they are always afraid of the government because they have guns, and every time there is a [democracy] movement, they stop that movement by gunning down the students," San San said.

"I call on the people -- the Chinese, the Laotians, the Indians, the Bangladeshi Bengali people -- to oppose their governments that support dictatorship" in Burma, said Thailand's Senator Kraisak Choonhavan in a Thursday (June 16) speech honoring Suu Kyi's birthday.

"Burma, I'm afraid, has put the entire region to blackmail," Kraisak said.

India, Bangladesh and Thailand have to support Burma, or else Rangoon will push refugees over the border and burden those countries, the Thai senator said.

Peace with Burma also means doing business with the regime to circumvent the sanctions, Kraisak said.

America also has loopholes in its sanctions, which mostly block new investment.

California-based oil giant, Unocal, continues to pump natural gas through a pipeline across Burma because the deal was negotiated before sanctions came into effect.

In March, Unocal agreed to compensate Burmese villagers over alleged abuses committed by Burmese guards during the construction of the 62-km (39-mile) Yadana natural gas pipeline, amid charges of murder, rape and enslavement along the route.


Richard S. Ehrlich, a freelance journalist who has reported news from Asia for the past 27 years, is co-author of the non-fiction book, "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" -- Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His web page is

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