/ 28 May 2008

West dismayed over Suu Kyi detention

Western governments lashed out at the extension of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest, but the outrage at Burma’s generals was tempered by concern over disrupting aid flows to desperate cyclone victims.

Burma has been promised millions of dollars in Western aid after Cyclone Nargis, but this cut no ice with the junta regarding the opposition leader, who has been under house arrest or in prison for nearly 13 of the last 18 years.

Officials drove to Suu Kyi’s lakeside Rangoon home on Tuesday to read out an extension order in person, but it was unclear whether the extension was for six months or a year.

”It is more likely one year,” said a senior police source close to officials in charge of Suu Kyi’s detention.

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who just returned to New York from an aid mission in Burma, expressed disappointment but refrained from sharp criticism.

”The sooner restrictions on Aung San Suu Kyi and other political figures are lifted, the sooner Myanmar will be able to move toward … restoration of democracy and full respect for human rights,” he said.

He added that his special envoy to Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, would raise the issue of Suu Kyi with the junta. Gambari’s previous missions have so far failed to coax any meaningful concessions from the generals.

Western nations were more forthright in their criticism of Suu Kyi’s ongoing detention.

United States President George Bush said he was ”deeply troubled” by the extension and called for the more than 1 000 political prisoners in Burma to be freed. However, the State Department said it would not affect US cyclone aid.

The 62-year-old Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won a 1990 poll by a landslide only to be denied power by the military, which has ruled the impoverished country for 46 years.

European Union external relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said the generals missed a historic opportunity to reconcile ”political life in Myanmar at a time when national and social cohesion, and solidarity and dialogue are more needed than ever”.

Access improving, says UN

Few had expected Suu Kyi to be released, but the extension was a reminder of the junta’s refusal to make any concessions on the domestic political front despite its grudging acceptance of foreign help after the May 2 cyclone.

Three weeks after the cyclone’s 190km/h winds and sea surge devastated the delta, the United Nations said it had raised roughly 60% of its initial $200-million target for aid for Burma and aid workers were getting more access.

”We’ve reached just over a million people with some kind of aid,” UN humanitarian affairs chief John Holmes told reporters.

Junta leader Senior General Than Shwe promised Ban last week that he would allow all legitimate foreign aid workers access to victims across the country.

Holmes said he did not know if all roadblocks had been removed, but the situation was better.

”There’s still a lot of people out there who have received nothing or certainly not enough,” he said.

In the delta, thousands of beggars line the roads, and droves of children shout ”Just throw something!” at passing vehicles.

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

The government has softened its line that immediate relief phase of the disaster was over, saying on Wednesday that local donors could now deliver aid in the delta.

”Individuals and organisations wishing to do so may go right down to the storm-hit towns, wards and villages of their choice,” said a statement published in the New Light of Myanmar, the generals’ main mouthpiece.

Much of the blame for the delayed aid effort has fallen on the junta which has been reluctant to admit a large-scale international relief for fear that would loosen the grip on power the army has held since a 1962 coup. – Reuters