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US Activists Mark Imprisoned Burmese Leader's Birthday

A group of human rights activists met in Washington Tuesday to celebrate the 62nd birthday of Burmese pro-democracy leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest in Rangoon for the past 17 years. VOA's Stephanie Ho reports from Washington.

In the United States, attention to the plight of Aung San Suu Kyi has reached as high up as the White House. First Lady Laura Bush wrote an opinion piece published in Tuesday's Wall Street Journal newspaper, highlighting the prominent dissident's story and criticizing the Burmese government's continuing human rights abuses.

She added that President Bush looks forward to signing into law the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act. The legislation, introduced last week, reauthorizes U.S. sanctions against the Burmese junta.

On Capitol Hill, Tuesday, the Congressional Human Rights Caucus hosted a celebration in honor of Aung San Suu Kyi's birthday. Ko Aung Din, a former Burmese student leader now at the non-profit U.S. Campaign for Burma, said people like him think of her like a mother.

Inge Sargent, an Austrian who married a prince from the country's Shan minority, sent a letter expressing support for the jailed Nobel laureate, as the only figure who would be an acceptable leader for all of Burma's people.

Her words were read by Annette Lantos, wife of House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Congressman Tom Lantos.

"Aung San Suu Kyi keeps alive the hope for a unified and democratic Burma. She is the only person who can bring together the 60 percent Burmans and the 40 percent non-Burman ethnics who inhabit the country, which I still call Burma," Lantos said.

The event also gave American activists, such as National Endowment for Democracy president Carl Gershman, the chance to remind the world of what he described as "the terrible injustice taking place in Burma."

"The million refugees, the displaced people, the child soldiers, the rape and the torture," Gershman said. This cannot continue to go on, and there is universal sentiment throughout the world that this is intolerable, and until this ceases, Burma will not be integrated, the government of Burma cannot be integrated into the international community."

Gershman pointed to a recent letter, signed by nearly 60 former heads of state, calling on the Burmese government to release Aung San Suu Kyi. The list includes former U.S. presidents George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, as well as former European leaders Vaclav Havel and Margaret Thatcher.

Lorne Craner, president of the International Republican Institute, says it is significant that former Asian leaders also signed the letter.

including Indonesia's Megawati Sukarnoputri and Corazon Aquino, from the Philippines.

"And I think as leaders in the region begin to tell Burma this cannot go on, you are a symbol of this region's past, you are not a symbol of this region's future, I think that will make a big difference," Craner said.

The Burmese government recently extended Aung San Suu Kyi's house arrest for another year. Activists say they hope that by this time, next year, she will be released from house arrest and free to celebrate her birthday as she wishes.