Burma Continues Detention of Nobel-Winning Activist

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Aung San Suu Kyi

Myanmar pro-democracy opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi speaks to reporters at the headquarters of her National League for Democracy in Yangon in a May 6, 2002, file photo. Reuters hide caption

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Officials in Burma say that Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi is going to remain in detention for another year. The 61-year-old Suu Kyi has spent roughly 10 of the last 15 years in prison or under house arrest after the military refused to accept her party's landslide victory in 1990 elections.


One person imprisoned in the Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar is a Nobel Prize winner. Reports from that country, formerly known as Burma, say that she will remain in custody for another year. Aung San Suu Kyi has spent roughly 10 of the last 15 years in prison or under house arrest after the military refused to accept her party's landslide victory in elections in 1990. NPR's Southeast Asian correspondent Michael Sullivan reports.


Sources in the government and in Aung San Suu Kyi's own National League for Democracy say she was visited by government officials at her home over the weekend and informed of the military's decision. The visit came on the day her previous yearlong detention was set to expire. Aung Zaw, a Burmese exile who edits the magazine Irrawaddy in neighboring Thailand, says the move comes as no surprise but is disappointing nonetheless.

Mr. AUNG ZAW (Editor, Irrawaddy): It will be quite risky for the military regime to release Aung San Suu Kyi at this time because the government itself is very shaky, and also she's remained very, very popular, and it could become a very uncontrollable situation for the government, because a lot of people will go and see her. I think a lot of people, they very much admire her, and I'm sure that it could create quite a chaotic situation.

SULLIVAN: Some say a chaotic or at least bizarre situation already exists. Earlier this month, the military leadership abruptly announced it would move the capital from Yangon, or Rangoon, to a new location deep inside the country's interior. No reason was given for the move. Some analysts suggest the regime is worried about a possible attack from the United States. Others say the move was ordered based on the advice of astrologers. Irrawaddy magazine editor Aung Zaw says the regime is now in trouble, riven by divisions within and by rising discontent on the streets. David Steinberg, director of Asian studies at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, isn't convinced.

Mr. DAVID STEINBERG (Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service): The country is in a dire state, but a dire state does not mean that it is going to collapse. It's a country that has managed, through the sale of gas to Thailand, through remittances from abroad, managed to keep alive, but that does not mean that the plight of the people has been improved. In fact, it has, I think, deteriorated, but deterioration of living standards does not necessarily mean that the regime is going to collapse.

SULLIVAN: The US and some European countries have imposed economic sanctions on Myanmar in an effort to convince the country's military leaders to loosen their grip on power. Myanmar's Southeast Asian neighbors have advocated a policy of constructive engagement. Neither has yielded results, nor the release of one of the world's best-known political prisoners. Irrawaddy editor Aung Zaw argues that the international community needs to speak with one voice.

Mr. ZAW: There has been a division in the international community, and there have to be, I think, consistent policies, particularly in Asia, China and India and the other Western nations who want to see change in Burma. They have to convince them. Otherwise, I think Burma policy is going nowhere, is--they have no direction at all.

SULLIVAN: Georgetown University's David Steinberg is a critic of sanctions. He argues they only serve to make a xenophobic, paranoid regime even more so and more resistant to change.

Mr. STEINBERG: First, we've got to tone down the rhetoric as we have tried in a bit to do in North Korea. The idea of calling these people thugs, rogue states, failed states and so forth is ineffective. It just creates antagonisms that are unnecessary. What we need is, I think, a quiet, higher-level dialogue on these issues with the idea saying that if you do--make certain reforms, then we will take specific actions. But that doesn't mean that these people are going to listen, but it is better than anything we're doing at the moment.

SULLIVAN: In the meantime, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi will remain in detention in her home, denied access to outside visitors and denied even telephone contact with the outside world. Michael Sullivan, NPR News, Hanoi.

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