/ 27 May 2008

Burma junta unmoved, extends Suu Kyi arrest

Burma’s junta extended the house arrest of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Tuesday, a move likely to dismay Western nations who promised millions of dollars in aid after Cyclone Nargis.

Officials drove to the Nobel laureate’s lakeside Rangoon home to read out a six-month extension order in person, said a government official, who asked not to be named.

However, a Rangoon-based diplomat said it was for a year.

The 62-year-old Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy (NLD) party won a 1990 election landslide only to be denied power by the army, has now spent nearly 13 of the last 18 years under some form of arrest.

Her latest period of detention started on May 30 2003 ”for her own protection” after clashes between her supporters and pro-junta thugs in the northern town of Depayin. The last of a series of year-long extensions expired on Tuesday.

Although few expected Suu Kyi to be released, the extension is a timely reminder of the ruling military’s refusal to make any concessions on the domestic political front despite its grudging acceptance of foreign help after the May 2 cyclone.

Hours before the extension, police arrested 20 NLD members trying to march to Suu Kyi’s home.

State-controlled media on Tuesday praised the United Nations for the help it has given to the 2,4-million people left destitute in the Irrawaddy Delta, suggesting a thaw in the junta’s frosty relationship with the outside world.

The English-language New Light of Myanmar, the generals’ main mouthpiece, said UN agencies took ”prompt action” to provide relief supplies after the cyclone, which left 134 000 people dead or missing.

Activists criticised UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon for not speaking out about Suu Kyi’s detention during his recent visit to the country Myanma, which the UN chief said was purely a humanitarian mission.

”It is shameful that Ban Ki-Moon went to Burma and failed even to utter her name,” Mark Farmaner, director of the Burma Campaign UK, said.

”He is playing into the regime’s hands. The UN is crawling on its knees before the regime, afraid to speak the truth in case it affects aid access deals, which the regime is already breaking in any case,” he said.

‘Just throw something’

Three weeks after the cyclone’s 190km/h winds and sea surge devastated the delta, the UN says fewer than one in three of those most in need have received any aid.

Thousands of beggars line the roads, with droves of children shouting ”Just throw something” at passing vehicles.

Witnesses say many villages have received no outside help, and waterways of Burma’s rice bowl remain littered with animal carcasses and corpses, either grotesquely bloated or rotting to the bone.

Much of the blame for the aid delay rests with the junta, which has been reluctant to admit a large-scale international relief effort for fear of loosening the vice-like grip on power the army has held since a 1962 coup.

However, top diplomats who helped coordinate a donor conference in Rangoon on Sunday said there were small signs of the generals gradually overcoming their pride and paranoia and admitting outside help.

”I can sense that there is a sense of urgency,” Surin Pitsuwan, secretary general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), said in the Thai capital on Tuesday. ”A sense of appreciation that the world, after all, is not all that hostile on some issues, particularly on humanitarian issues,” Surin told a news conference.

Washington told the Rangoon conference it was ready to raise its offer of $20,5-million in aid if the junta opened up, but added it was ”dismayed” the generals went ahead with a constitutional referendum in the middle of the disaster.

The result — 92,5% in favour on a turnout of 98,1% in a poll held with no neutral monitoring — is unlikely to enhance the credibility of the generals’ seven-step ”roadmap to democracy”, that is meant to culminate in elections in 2010.

After a promise to visiting UN chief Ban by junta supremo Than Shwe that all aid workers would be given full access to the delta, foreign experts have headed out of Rangoon to test whether anything has changed on the ground.

Burma embassies are also granting more visas to aid workers, although the World Food Programme, which is spearheading much of the emergency relief push, says it is coming up against reams of red tape at every turn.

”Yesterday was a record, red-letter day with seven visas applied for and seven issued,” WFP spokesperson Paul Risley said.

”But every step of the way has been difficult. Every step has required agreement with the government, clearance from the government, approval by the government of virtually all of our actions.”

Thomas Gurtner, director of programmes at the international federation of the Red Cross, said Burma had asked the agency to submit a list of priority expatriates and it hoped to deploy an initial batch of six water and sanitation experts into the disaster area in the next few days. – Reuters