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Myanmar Says Suu Kyi Will Be Released Soon

Foreign minister's vague assurances may be designed to blunt criticism before this week's conference of Southeast Asian nations.

June 16, 2003|Richard C. Paddock | Times Staff Writer

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Myanmar democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose detention for more than two weeks has alarmed world leaders, will be freed in the near future, the country's foreign minister said Sunday.

Foreign Minister Win Aung, speaking to reporters in Cambodia before a meeting this week of Asian officials, said assassination plots were brewing in Myanmar and insisted that Suu Kyi was being held for her own protection. He gave no timetable for the military regime's release of the Nobel Peace Prize winner, whose nonviolent, 15-year campaign for democracy has won her admirers around the world.

"I cannot say how soon, tomorrow or the day after tomorrow or when, but we can assure you one thing -- that we are working to bring back the situation to normal," he told reporters in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital.

Suu Kyi's motorcade was attacked in northern Myanmar on May 30 by pro-government thugs who beat and killed dozens of her supporters, witnesses have reported. The government, which denies responsibility for the attack, says four people died and 48 were hospitalized. Suu Kyi's supporters say as many as 80 may have died in the melee.

Zaw Zaw Aung, a National League for Democracy leader who survived the assault, said many of the assailants were disguised as monks and showed no mercy as they beat members of Suu Kyi's entourage and villagers who had come to hear her speak.

"To kill and mutilate was their purpose," he said in an interview with the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, an exile group, that was published in Irrawaddy magazine in Thailand.

"They went through the crowd with two or three sticks in hand and thrashed at fallen bodies," he said. "They responded to groans or pleas for mercy with more severe thrashings. At that time, we were very afraid for our lives. So we lay very still and did not move."

Suu Kyi escaped in her vehicle but soon she and 18 leaders of her NLD were detained. A U.N. envoy who was allowed to meet with her 12 days after the incident told reporters afterward that she was in good health.

Myanmar, also known as Burma, has been ruled by the military since 1962. In 1988, the regime allowed democratic elections and Suu Kyi's party won by a landslide, but it was not permitted to take power. Suu Kyi has been under house arrest for more than half of the last 13 years. She was most recently released in May 2002.

European nations and the U.S. have imposed economic sanctions that have crippled the country's economy, but business dealings with countries such as China and Thailand have helped the military regime survive.

President Bush sharply criticized the latest detention of Suu Kyi, and Congress is moving to pass legislation that would ban imports from Myanmar, broaden a ban on visas for the regime's leaders and freeze Myanmar government assets in the U.S.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who is scheduled to attend this week's meeting of the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations in Phnom Penh, has said he will make an issue of Suu Kyi's detention and encourage Myanmar's neighbors to put pressure on the regime to free her.

Opposition leaders have called for worldwide protests on Suu Kyi's behalf on Thursday, the day she turns 58.

Win Aung's comments before Powell's arrival appeared designed to soften international criticism of the regime. "Let us not call it detention," he told reporters. "What we would like to say is that for the time being we protect her from personal harm."

The foreign minister referred vaguely to assassination plots but did not specify whether Suu Kyi was the target or who might be trying to kill her.

"There were some assassins going around the country," he said. "I don't know whom their targets were, our leaders? But if anything happened to her, it will be blamed on us."

The government earlier blamed Suu Kyi for prompting the attack on her by making negative comments about the government.

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