BANGKOK — The world's most famous political prisoner, Aung San Suu Kyi, was due to be freed from house arrest today, but her fate has gone largely unnoticed amid the destruction of Cyclone Nargis.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon avoided any mention of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate yesterday during a conference with more than 50 nations to discuss relief.
"We must think about people just now, not politics," Mr. Ban told a group of local and wire service reporters, who were permitted to cover the conference in Rangoon, Burma's largest city.
Mrs. Suu Kyi has spent 12 of the past 18 years under house arrest. She was last confined to her two-story lakefront home in May 2003, and the term has been renewed every year since.
But this year's deadline reaches a critical point.
Under Burmese law, no one can be held longer than five years without being released or put on trial, U.S. lawyer Jared Genser, who was hired by Mrs. Suu Kyi's family to push for her release, told the Associated Press.
"Their failure to abide by their own law by refusing to release [Mrs. Suu Kyi] ... is a clear slap in the face to Ban Ki-moon and the ASEAN diplomats and others coming into town," Mr. Genser told the AP, referring to the member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. "They are out of time to hold her under their own law."
Mrs. Suu Kyi has always been able to walk out of her home if she agrees to leave Burma. The military junta most likely would never allow her to return, which is why she did not attend the funeral in England when her husband, British academic Michael Aris, died several years ago.
Now unwilling to travel to see her two adult sons in Britain, Mrs. Suu Kyi was barred from ever becoming Burma's leader after the junta held a May 10 referendum to approve a new constitution. The language disqualifies candidates who have foreign relatives.
The junta proceeded with the referendum one week after the cyclone ripped apart the nation's Irrawaddy River delta. At least 78,000 people have died and more than 2 million left homeless. The toll is expected to soar as hunger and disease take hold.
The junta has made it nearly impossible for international relief workers to bring aid to the delta region. The junta told Mr. Ban on Friday that the restrictions would be lifted.
Mrs. Suu Kyi is being held under Burma's State Protection Law, which allows the detention of anyone who is deemed a "threat to the sovereignty and security of the State, and the peace of the people."
If she is not freed, Mrs. Suu Kyi may end up marking her 63rd birthday on June 19 still under house arrest.
"They don't want [her] to get involved in politics," Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej said during a visit to Burma on April 30, two days before the cyclone hit.
"The international community might be upset about the idea, but I see nothing wrong, as the proposed constitution prohibits those who were married to foreigners from politics," Mr. Samak said.
Mrs. Suu Kyi's father, Aung San, joined Japanese forces during World War II with hopes they would end British colonial rule and grant independence to Burma. Atrocities committed by Japanese occupiers prompted Aung San to switch sides and help British forces oust Japan in 1945.
His assassination in 1947 and the slayings of six members of his interim government were blamed on political rivals. The assassinations are marked each July 19 as Martyrs' Day.
After Burma's independence in 1948, Aung San's daughter studied in Rangoon until she was 15, and then moved to New Delhi, where her widowed mother was Burma's ambassador to India and Nepal.
She studied politics at Delhi University and obtained an undergraduate degree from Oxford University's St. Hugh's College before marrying in 1972.
After returning to Burma, she became involved in politics. Her National League for Democracy party won more than 80 percent of parliament's seats in a 1990 election.
The military, which has held power since a 1962 coup, voided that election.
The junta often denounces Mrs. Suu Kyi as an "ax handle" and "puppet" being used by the U.S. CIA and Burma's other enemies to chop up the resource-rich country so the Pentagon can establish military bases.
While Mrs. Suu Kyi languishes under house arrest, Burma holds hundreds of other political prisoners in cruel conditions, according to London-based Amnesty International and other human rights groups.