Supporters of Burma's jailed democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, gathered on U.S. Capitol Hill on Thursday to mark her 64th birthday and renew calls for her release from jail. A State Department official called on Burma's military government to free the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner who is on trial charged with violating the terms of her house arrest.
Aung San Suu Kyi is the only Nobel Peace Prize laureate still in detention, having spent 13 of the last 19 years under house arrest at the hands of Burma's military.
Each year, supporters around the world mark her birthday with observances, including the one on Thursday with members of her National League for Democracy party and representatives of non-government organizations.
Carl Gershman, President of the National Endowment for Democracy, told the gathering that support for Aung San Suu Kyi is more important than ever, as she faces what he called an illegitimate legal proceeding in Rangoon. "It is simply the latest in a long line of political actions intended to cover an illegitimate dictatorship with the thin veneer of democratic and legal formality. And it will fail because the regime's word games and political machinations are no match for the lady's plain honesty and politics, as she calls it," he said.
The U.S. State Department, marking Aung San Suu Kyi's birthday, said Burmese authorities are pursuing unjustified and indefensible charges against her.
"The Burmese authorities should heed the call of the U.N. and international community to drop all charges and to release Aung San Suu Kyi and the more than 2,100 political prisoners unjustifiably held under arrests and in prison in that country," said Karen Stewart, Acting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor:
There have been global calls for Aung San Suu Kyi's release, and U.N. human rights experts said this week that the trial proceedings permitted "flagrant" rights violations.
Lawyers for Aung San Suu Kyi say Burma's Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments on whether or not to allow more defense witnesses in her trial.
Ken Wollack, President of the National Democratic Institute in Washington, voices the widely-held view that the trial is an excuse to keep her in detention ahead of national elections the military plans next year:
"The trial highlights once again the thousands of political detainees held within Burma's prisons and the great need for their release. The junta's refusal to release these prisoners and open space for participation of all political parties precludes any attempt for a credible election in 2010. It has become obvious that the junta does not plan to make the same mistake that it made in 1990," he said.
U Sein Win, head of Burma's government in exile, asserts Burma's military fears the impact Aung San Suu Kyi might have if she were freed before the planned election in 2010. "They are afraid and they want to finish the 2010 elections without any kind of problem and of course they see her as an obstacle. They are afraid," he said.
Paula Schriefer, director of advocacy for Freedom House, said the symbolism of Aung Suu Kyi's struggle against oppression has not diminished.
"When awarded the Nobel Prize in 1991, the Nobel committee said she had become an important symbol in the worldwide struggle against oppression. Eighteen years later she has maintained her commitment to promoting democracy and human rights in Burma and continues to be an important symbol to anyone struggling against oppressive regimes," she said.
In a message to the Capitol Hill event, Czech Republic ambassador to the United States, Petr Kolar, called on Burma's military to immediately release Aung San Suu Kyi, and ensure that the 2010 elections are credible, transparent and inclusive based on international standards.