Burma’s imprisoned democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi will mark her 64th birthday on 19 June 2009, her 14th year in detention. An iconic symbol of Myanmar’s political resistance, she is the world’s only imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner. She has committed no crime, she is the victim of crime, yet her detention can continue for many more years. The United Nations has ruled that Aung San Suu Kyi’s detention is illegal under international law, and also under Burmese law. The United Nations Security Council has also told the dictatorship that they must release her. Comparable to the personal, moral and democratic power of Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, her continued detention is a powerful reminder of the unrelenting repression in Myanmar, and what must be done to make democracy and human rights a reality.
Detentions and repression, widespread reports of ill-treatment and torture, and sentencing in closed and grossly unfair trials behind prison walls, make a mockery of commitments made by the Myanmar authorities to cooperate with the United Nations. Will her 64th birth year be free from prison and detention greatly depends on the UN Security Council, notably China and Japan, ASEAN countries and India, who all are best placed to bring the necessary pressure to bear on the Myanmar government. The release of Aung San Suu Kyi must not wait for the conclusion of any political or diplomatic process.
Military dictatorship is now using a new trail to keep Aung San in prison: Her current house detention order was set to expire on 27 May 2009. However, on 18 May, she was put on another trial, charged with breaching the terms of her house arrest after an American man, John Yettaw, swam to her house and refused to leave. The dictatorship is using the visit as an opportunity to extend her detention. Her trial is ongoing and she could face a further five years in detention. Nothing has changed for Aung San Suu Kyi and the other more than 2200 political prisoners. Remember October 2008, when the government began sentencing en masse those who had peacefully taken part in the August/September 2007 anti-government protests and more than 350 political activists were jailed. Some of these political activists have been given lengthy jail terms – some as long as 65 years. The severity of these sentences flies in the face of the government’s claims that its new constitution and plans for elections in 2010 are genuine efforts towards increasing political participation. They also serve as a powerful reminder that the government is still ignoring calls from the international community to improve the country’s democratic rights record.
Co-founder of Myanmar’s main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), Aung San Suu Kyi is also one of the world’s best-known political figures and campaigners for human rights. Aung San Suu Kyi has endured unofficial detention, house arrest and restrictions on her movement since July 1989, all aimed at preventing her from becoming the national leader of Myanmar. Her sufferings and struggles have been immense. A few references will give us a glimpse of the injustice and violence meted to her for so long.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s party won the general elections in Myanmar in 1990. However, instead of taking her position as a national leader, she was kept under house arrest by the military authorities and remains so today. The process began, following the brutal crackdown of the 1988 pro-democracy protests. A year later, her party won the elections by an overwhelming majority. But the military rulers declared the results null and void and continued to deny Aung San Suu Kyi her freedom. She is generally not allowed any visitors, is held in increasing isolation, and permitted only infrequent visits by her doctor. She has most recently been detained since 30 May 2003, after a violent attack on her and other party members during a trip through upper Myanmar. The attack is believed to have been carried out with the involvement of the state and state sponsored civil organizations, and still has not been independently investigated.
Aung San Suu Kyi and her entourage were stopped on the road at night between villages near Depeyin in a remote part of Sagaing Division. They were set upon in a violent coordinated attack. Men with sharpened bamboo sticks, iron rods and stones, attacked vehicles, pulling individuals out of cars and beating them repeatedly on the head and body. NLD Youth members and others attempted to protect the leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi and her deputy U Tin Oo. At least four persons were killed, and scores more seriously injured. Aung San Suu Kyi and her security detail escaped, but they were soon taken into detention and held incommunicado.
After the attack, the authorities stated that Aung San Suu Kyi was being held in protective custody and that measures against the detained leaders would be lifted as the situation normalized. They promised in July 2003 that she would be released ‘when the time comes’ and that they were waiting for a ‘cool down’. In August 2003, they urged, ‘Let us not call it a detention…. We don’t have any kind of intention of animosity against Aung San Suu Kyi. That is why we have not taken any legal action against her and her party’.
After being held incommunicado in a military camp, Aung San Suu Kyi was transferred to her house in September 2003 and held under de facto house arrest. In November 2003, the authorities handed down a one-year detention order under an administrative detention law that has been regularly extended since. Aung San Suu Kyi was previously held under house arrest on account of her prominent role in opposition politics between 1989 and 1995, and 2000 to 2002. During her time in house arrest, the authorities twice amended the legislation under which she is held to allow for a longer period of detention without charge or trial. Even when she was not under official house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi had her freedom of movement heavily restricted: the authorities blockaded roads, often arrested those seeking to meet her and denied family members, including her critically ill husband, permission to visit the country to see her.
Major celebrities, including George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Vaclav Havel, David Beckham, Daniel Craig, Stephen Fry, Eddie Izzard, Kevin Spacey and the British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown are asking for one thing today. Major organizations like Burma Campaign UK, Amnesty International, Trades Union Congress, Not On Our Watch, Human Rights Watch, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Open Society Institute, Avaaz, English Pen and US Campaign For Burma are campaigning for one issue: write a 64 word message for Aung San Suu Kyi’s 64th birthday for a free birth year. Will we all be a part of this?