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Myanmar's Captive Soul

June 27, 2005

Repressive military regimes have ruled Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, for 43 years, suffocating the political process and inflicting poverty on a once-rich nation. The woman who should be leading the country, Aung San Suu Kyi, marked her 60th birthday last week; she has spent nearly 10 of the last 16 years in prison or under house arrest.

Demonstrators in dozens of cities in scores of countries celebrated her birthday and insisted that the country's military junta free her. That's a demand the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations needs to press forcefully. If Myanmar wants to assume the rotating leadership of the 10-member association, which is scheduled to happen next year, it should free Suu Kyi. If it refuses, other nations should boycott the annual meeting, set to be held in the capital, Yangon, once known as Rangoon.

Suu Kyi was visiting Burma from her home in England in 1988 when rallies against the ruling generals erupted. She is the daughter of a revered leader in the fight for independence from Britain, Aung San, and quickly moved to the forefront of the pro-democracy protests. The generals, who issued orders to open fire on demonstrators and killed thousands, put Suu Kyi under house arrest the next year with no charges or trial. But in 1990, her political party won 82% of the seats in the national assembly. The generals ignored the results.

Suu Kyi won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, and though she has periodically been granted freedom, she has not left Myanmar for fear she would not be allowed to return. Her husband was allowed to visit her in 1996, but the generals barred him in 1999 as he was dying of cancer.

Suu Kyi was influenced by India's apostle of nonviolence and leader of its independence movement, Mohandas K. Gandhi, yet India refuses to impose sanctions on Myanmar. China is a major trading partner, as is Thailand. The U.S. has a better record, renewing sanctions each year on Myanmar because of Suu Kyi. The sanctions have not won her release, but they need to be retained, and other nations should adopt them. To lift sanctions would reinforce the military's belief that it can act with impunity.

Myanmar tries to keep foreign correspondents away and control access to Internet sites and e-mail, but Times staff writer Richard C. Paddock recently visited. In a telling commentary on the repression and poverty wrought by decades of military rule, a 47-year-old worker in the largely Buddhist nation told him, "In my next life, I want to come back in another country."

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