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Burmese Nobel Laureate Still Under House Arrest on 60th Birthday


Supporters of Burmese Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi issued fresh calls for her release, as she marked her 60th birthday Sunday, under house arrest in Rangoon. She has been detained for nearly 10 of the last 16 years.

Protesters at a small rally in front of the Burmese Embassy in Washington Friday mixed a traditional happy birthday song to Aung San Suu Kyi with calls for her release.

At the demonstration, Congressman Tom Lantos, who is the only Holocaust survivor in the U.S. Congress, said the Burmese dissident has a place in an international pantheon of heroes.

"She is right there with Nelson Mandela of South Africa and Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic, and the other giants, men and women, who are prepared to sacrifice years of their lives, so that their people can live in a free and open and democratic society," Mr. Lantos says.

Congressman Lantos sent greetings to the jailed Burmese activist.

"I want Aung San Suu Kyi to know that the entire Congress of the United States of America and the American people are with her today, wishing her a happy birthday and the moral and physical courage to continue her efforts," Mr. Lantos says.

The congressman also had tried, unsuccessfully, to deliver to the embassy a box full of birthday cards, sent by well-wishers from around the United States.

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"Unfortunately, the Burmese regime had put sort of like a doggy (low metal) gate on the steps of the embassy, because they knew he (Lantos) would be coming, to block him from going up those steps," says Jeremy Woodrum.

Mr. Woodrum is the director of the non-profit group, U.S. Campaign for Burma, which helped organize events in the United States.

"There has not been a campaign to free Aung San Suu Kyi, on a deliberate, coordinated, international level since her house arrest in the early 1990's," Mr. Woodrum says.

In 1990, Aung San Suu Kyi won a landslide victory in national elections, although Burmese leaders, who have held power for about four decades, refused to step aside. The Burmese activist was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize one year later, and has been in and out of house arrest since. Her latest detention started in May 2003.

Mr. Woodrum said many international activists had had a mistaken belief that, this time, the Burmese regime would free her quickly.

"I think people think, now is the time to organize internationally and demand her release, and demand the release of all political prisoners, because, if we don't, they could hold her for a very long time," Mr. Woodrum says.

Meanwhile, members of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy gathered at the party's headquarters in Rangoon, where they released doves and balloons in honor of their leader's birthday. The occasion was also marked with demonstrations for democracy around Asia.

World leaders, including President Bush and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, made fresh appeals to Burma's rulers to immediately release Aung San Suu Kyi. Fellow Nobel laureates, South African archbishop Desmond Tutu and Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, Dalai Lama, also sent their greetings.

The Burmese activist's supporters include Irish folk singer Damien Rice, who wrote a song called "Unplayed Piano," after he made a trip to Burma in 2004. The song refers to Aung San Suu Kyi's love of playing her piano, while in detention, a small pleasure she has been denied since the piano broke down.

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