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Pressure mounts on Myanmar to release Suu Kyi

June 20, 2003 10:09 IST

Myanmar's pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi spent her 58th birthday on Thursday in Yangon's forbidding Insein prison, as diplomatic pressure mounted on the country's military rulers for her release.

United States Secretary of State Colin Powell sent her birthday greetings, which the US embassy in Yangon was unable to deliver, while British Foreign Office Minister Mike O'Brien failed in an attempt to phone her.

Closer to home, the Nobel laureate's cause created rare unity at an Asian-Pacific meeting in Phnom Penh, prompting Myanmar's beleaguered foreign minister to promise her detention was only temporary.

"We are not a brutal country. If we were brutal, there would be signs of brutality all across the country," Foreign Minister Win Aung told a news conference.

He said the ever-present threat of insurrection and violence against the authorities, or Suu Kyi herself, justified her isolation from public life.

The previous day, Powell had told "the brutal rulers of Burma" to release her.

Myanmar's reclusive military junta said the Nobel peace laureate was taken into "protective custody" on May 30 after violent clashes between her supporters and pro-government groups in which four people died during a tour of northern Myanmar by opposition leaders.

Her whereabouts were not clear until Britain's O'Brien said on Thursday she was being held at Insein -- believed to have been the largest prison in the British Empire before World War Two.

"I am appalled to learn today, on her 58th birthday, Aung San Suu Kyi is being held in the notorious Insein Jail on the outskirts of Rangoon (Yangon) in a two-room


"I understand that she continues to wear the clothes in which she was arrested," O'Brien said in a statement.

In Bangkok, about 100 Myanmar exiles lit 58 candles to mark her birthday in a demonstration outside the country's embassy. About 140 people, mainly Burmese, handed a letter seeking action to British Prime Minister Tony Blair's London residence.

Organisers said demonstrations had also been planned in the United States, Brazil, Japan, France, Germany and the Netherlands.

U.N. envoy Razali Ismail, who was instrumental in persuading the junta to free Suu Kyi from her last period of house arrest in May 2002, is the only outsider to have seen her since May 30.

He left Yangon last week saying she was in good spirits and was not injured, as was feared, in the violence during the opposition tour.

The director of the Burma Campaign UK, John Jackson, said in London the law under which she was detained "has been used to put people into prison indefinitely".

In Washington, State Department spokesman Philip Reeker, noting Powell's birthday greetings, called for the release of Suu Kyi and other members of her National League for Democracy.

A Washington official said on Wednesday the United States was considering tougher sanctions against Myanmar, including restrictions on travel and remittances and a ban on imports from the Southeast Asian country.

The European Union decided last Monday to tighten sanctions following Suu Kyi's detention. Its sanctions currently include an arms embargo and visa bans and asset freezes on more than 150 government officials.