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Suppressing Burma’s ‘beacon’

BANGKOK

Aung San Suu Kyi, one of the world's most famous political prisoners, completes 13 years under house arrest on Friday, refusing to leave Burma for freedom in self-exile because she fears the military regime would block her future return.

Mrs. Suu Kyi, 63, remains in her mildewing, two-story villa, which offers a spacious garden nestling along a lake in Burma's largest city, Rangoon, also known as Yangon.

Her gated home has faltering electricity, and she depends on a drip-feed of contact with the outside world.

"On Friday, October 24th, Aung San Suu Kyi will have spent a total of 13 years in detention," announced Britain's Burma Campaign, an activist group that called on foreign leaders, and the public, to demand she be freed along with "all political prisoners" in Burma.

In Washington, the State Department called Mrs. Suu Kyi "a steady beacon of hope and inspiration to those seeking a peaceful, democratic Burma" and called upon the Burmese regime to "immediately and unconditionally" release her and the more than 2000 political prisoners it holds.

Noting that Oct. 24 also marks the anniversary of the coming into force of the U.N. charter, department spokesman Robert Wood said Washington supports U.N. efforts under the leadership of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to obtain the release of Burma´s political prisoners and encourage Burma to move toward democracy.

"Releasing Aung San Suu Kyi would be a first step toward Burma´s reintegration into the world community," he said. "We further join the United Nations and the rest of the international community in calling upon the regime to engage credibly in an inclusive, time-bound dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi and other democratic and ethnic minority leaders to bring about a genuine democratic transition."

The U.S. Campaign for Burma called for a demonstration at 5 p.m. Friday outside the Chinese Embassy in Washington because China is the main supporter of Burma's regime and blocks U.N. action to restore democracy.

In foreign countries, her depressed supporters can do little in public except to wear Suu Kyi face masks during protests to mark the day, while airing news about their plight via magazines, Web sites, radio broadcasts and other international media.

Mrs. Suu Kyi's supporters try to fend off the regime's accusations that she and her activists are "puppets" and "ax-handles" of the U.S., Britain and other countries, because Mrs. Suu Kyi and some of her activists have received foreign government and nongovernmental cash and assistance.

Among Burma's new generation, meanwhile, some have voiced frustration with her nonviolent stance.

The most distraught have called for a U.S. military invasion, or stepped-up armed struggle, to overthrow the entrenched junta in Burma, which the regime prefers to call Myanmar.

Burma is described as an Orwellian society, with ubiquitous slogans on huge billboards throughout the country exhorting people to unite and cherish the leadership of a supposedly altruistic military regime.

Most forms of communication, including telephone, radio, television and the Internet, are heavily censored or sinisterly monitored.

In a propaganda twist, the junta recently pasted the Orwellian label back onto Mrs. Suu Kyi's supporters and also onto minority ethnic guerrillas who have fought for more than 50 years for autonomous or independent enclaves - separatist fights that Mrs. Suu Kyi opposes.

In a lengthy critique headlined "Saboteurs in Disguise of Democracy Activists" on Oct. 9, the government-controlled New Light of Myanmar newspaper said: "In his essay 'Politics and the English Language,' well-known writer George Orwell of the early 20th century states many terms that have become meaningless after being often misused by politicians.

"Such terms as 'freedom,' 'democracy' and 'justice' are used so often in a dishonest way, that they have lost their original meaning.

"Many anti-government groups in Myanmar often, and variously, use those words. Some of those groups are subversive elements to the core."

The report blamed minority ethnic Karen, the All Burma Students' Democratic Front and others for a string of bomb attacks during recent weeks.

"These men, too, are just powers taking positions under the command of their Western masters," the newspaper said.

Burma's vast natural resources and strategic location have long been coveted by outsiders, attracting Kublai Khan's Mongol invaders in the 13th century.

British colonialists repeatedly attacked the country during the 1800s.

London grudgingly granted Burma independence in 1948, after a Japanese invasion and occupation during World War II, and the assassination of Mrs. Suu Kyi's father, Gen. Aung San, in 1947.

Today, the would-be wealthy country is one of the world's poorest, devastated by voracious military dictators since 1962 and, more recently, ever-tightening international economic sanctions led by the U.S.

Mrs. Suu Kyi has added to the country's poverty by demanding that international tourists boycott Burma until democracy is achieved, sparking an ongoing debate over whether the military, or impoverished citizens, would profit more from foreign investment and tourism.

Mrs. Suu Kyi has been freed several times since her first arrest in 1989, but the regime repeatedly sent her home after she roused thousands of supporters by speaking in public.

When Mrs. Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party won a nationwide election in 1990, the regime invalidated the results.

Her current stint under house arrest, since 2003, was extended in mid-2008 with a possible release date in November 2009.

Winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, Mrs. Suu Kyi has expressed concern that the military prefers not to negotiate, and instead relies on a brutal strategy of killing pro-democracy demonstrators, torture, unfair imprisonment and other abuses.

The worst bloodshed occurred during a 1988 insurrection that left an estimated 3,000 pro-democracy demonstrators dead.

Mrs. Suu Kyi is free to leave Burma and join her two adult sons in Britain, but she has refused to budge, defying her detractors who say she is withering into a paralyzed icon, which the junta expects to outlive.

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