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Myanmar Cracks Down on Opposition

Nation's military rulers hold pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi for a third day. Party offices and universities are shut down.

June 02, 2003|Richard C. Paddock | Times Staff Writer

JAKARTA, Indonesia — In a major crackdown on Myanmar's democracy movement, the country's military rulers held opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi for a third day Sunday, closed offices of her party and shut down universities.

Suu Kyi, who had been taken into "protective custody" Friday in northern Myanmar, was transported to Yangon, the nation's capital, and detained at a guest house.

Suu Kyi, 57, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, spent a total of 7 1/2 years under house arrest. Her National League for Democracy won parliamentary elections by a landslide in 1990, but she and her party were never allowed to take power.

She was released a year ago after 19 months in captivity and began traveling around the country, previously known as Burma, to rebuild her party.

On Friday, fighting erupted between her supporters and a crowd of about 5,000 pro-government demonstrators as she entered a town in northern Myanmar, authorities said. The government reported that four people were killed, 50 were injured and she was taken into custody.

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Sunday that he was following the situation "with concern." U.N. special envoy Razali Ismail was scheduled to arrive in Yangon later this week for talks originally aimed at restarting negotiations between Suu Kyi and the government.

Pro-democracy activists outside the country condemned Suu Kyi's arrest and said the riot was staged by the government, giving authorities a pretext to take her into custody.

"This is the regime's most serious crackdown on democracy in years," said Aung Din, a former political prisoner who is policy director of the Washington-based Free Burma Coalition. "This latest outrage proves yet again that Burma's regime has lied to the international community and lied to the Burmese people."

The Free Burma Coalition suggested that the riot might have been an attempt to assassinate her. The government denied reports that an unidentified gunman shot at her car.

A Washington-based opposition group that calls itself the National Coalition Government of Burma alleged that as many as 70 people may have been killed and that Suu Kyi was struck on the head in an attack organized by the government. The coalition, citing sources in Myanmar, said soldiers and convicts recruited from Mandalay prison were among the crowd of more than 500 attackers.

Government officials blamed the clash on Suu Kyi and said she had created unrest by giving speeches critical of the regime. They also accused her of opening party offices in some locations without notifying authorities.

"These incidents happened because Aung San Suu Kyi had taken advantage of her party organizational trip to campaign publicly, thereby making many people resent her actions," Labor Minister Tin Win told reporters Saturday.

At least 18 National League for Democracy leaders were detained with Suu Kyi. Other party officials were placed under house arrest in Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon. Western diplomats who attempted to visit them were turned away by authorities.

National League for Democracy offices were closed in Yangon and other major cities, and the phone lines apparently were cut. Government spokesman Than Tun said the party headquarters would remain closed "until the present problem is solved." Universities, which have been centers of anti-government opposition in the past, were ordered shut indefinitely Sunday, a day before a new semester was to begin. Student protests prompted authorities to close campuses from 1996 to 2000.

Hundreds of political prisoners had been released in the last year, but human rights activists estimated that more than 1,000 remained in custody. Suu Kyi has made their release one of her top demands.

Since the military brutally crushed a popular uprising in 1988, Myanmar has been increasingly isolated from the outside world.

The United States and other Western countries have imposed economic sanctions and the country's economy has stagnated. Today, the export of illegal drugs is one of Myanmar's major businesses.

After Friday's clash and the detention of Suu Kyi and other party leaders, democracy activists called on Congress to pass even tougher sanctions.

"These killings and arrests demonstrate that increased international pressure through sanctions and isolating the regime politically and economically is the only policy option we have," Aung Din said.


Times wires services contributed to this report.

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