/ 24 October 2007

Twelve years and counting for Aung San Suu Kyi

Australia slapped financial sanctions on Burma’s generals and their families on Wednesday as supporters of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi marked her 12 years in captivity with protests in 12 cities across the world.

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said the measures, in response to last month’s bloody crackdown on the biggest democracy protests in two decades, would hit 418 people, including junta leader Senior General Than Shwe.

”These new measures are designed to put further pressure on the regime and its supporters while avoiding harm to the people of Burma,” Downer said in a statement.

Given that two-way trade with the former Burma amounted to just Aus$54-million ($48-million) in 2006, the measures appear to be aimed mainly at junta family members going to Australian schools and universities.

Mirroring tough restrictions imposed by the United States, the sanctions are a rare example of a government in Asia taking concrete action against the junta, which has so far only come under verbal pressure from its regional neighbours.

However, the marking of 12 cumulative years in custody for Nobel laureate Suu Kyi gave an added twist to street protests against the generals as UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari started the Chinese leg of a regional tour.

Twelve white-robed protesters in Suu Kyi masks stood outside the Chinese embassy in Bangkok, trying to force Beijing in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics to nudge its wayward southern neighbour and trading partner towards reform.

”China, China, go, go,” the protesters chanted, along with ”Free Burma” and ”Free Aung San Suu Kyi”.

Similar protests at noon local time are planned for 12 cities — London, Paris, Berlin, Dublin, Vienna, Sydney, Washington, Toronto, New York, Brasilia, Bangkok and Cape Town.

Promises, promises

Suu Kyi (62) won the Nobel Peace Prize while under house arrest in 1991, a year after her National League for Democracy (NLD) won an election landslide only to be denied power by the army that has ruled unchecked since a 1962 coup.

Six female fellow peace laureates called on the world not to ease up on the junta after its crackdown on huge pro-democracy protests led by Buddhist monks. State media said 10 people died, although Western governments say the toll is probably far higher.

”The detention of Aung San Suu Kyi is the most visible manifestation of the regime’s brutality, but it is only the tip of the iceberg,” the six wrote in a letter in the Guardian.

A major arms supplier and trading partner, China is one of the few countries thought to have any sway over the isolated Burmese regime, which has lived with US and European sanctions for 10 years with little apparent discomfort.

India promised Gambari it would help push the generals towards democracy but baulked at committing to a tougher line against a country New Delhi sees as a key potential supplier of minerals and energy.

Singapore, where the generals go for medical treatment and their wives go for shopping, is opposed to action even though as current chair of the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) it expressed ”revulsion” at the crackdown.

”We should keep up external pressure but the evidence so far has showed that economic sanctions have not worked in Myanmar,” second finance minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam told reporters in New York at a meeting of key Asean officials.

However, the generals have made a highly conditional offer of talks with Suu Kyi and agreed to bring forward a planned return visit by Gambari to the first week of November, the UN said.

They have also invited the UN’s point man on human rights in Burma to visit in mid-November, the first time Paulo Sergio Pinheiro has been offered a visa since 2003.

Pinheiro said it was ”an important sign that the government wants to engage again in constructive dialogue”. – Reuters