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Burma's Detained Democracy Leader Honored Globally for 65th Birthday

Burma's democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, turns 65 Saturday. But, as with many past birthdays, she is spending it in detention. The military government, which ignored her party's 1990 election win, has kept her under house arrest for most of the last two decades and barred her from this year's controversial elections. She is being honored around the world for her determination to see democracy in Burma.

Aung San Suu Kyi's 65th birthday is being marked globally with rallies and speeches from London to Manila to Washington D.C. But it is more a show of solidarity than a celebration.

The leader of Burma's National League for Democracy has spent 14 birthdays in some form of detention, with limited access to the outside world.

Last August, the government extended Aung San Suu Kyi's house arrest for 18 months for failing to inform authorities that an uninvited American man had swam to her lakeside home.

Critics say it was an excuse to keep her locked up through controversial elections expected later this year.

Demand for dialogue

Activists and supporters spoke at the Bangkok press club Thursday calling for Aung San Suu Kyi's release and for the government to agree to a dialogue with her and opposition groups.

Canada's Ambassador to Thailand, Ron Hoffman, says Aung San Suu Kyi is one of the few foreigners granted honorary Canadian citizenship for her work towards democracy in Burma.

"Today we reaffirm our commitment to carry this collective struggle forward. The government of Canada will do its part to ensure that Canadian actions match our words," Hoffman said. "To this end, Canada has imposed, and continues to, the toughest sanctions in the world on Burma's military regime."

The United States and the European Union, among others, also have tough economic sanctions against Burma for its failure to improve democracy and human rights.

Many political prisoners

There are more than 2,100 political prisoners in Burma, including Aung San Suu Kyi, and rights groups document widespread military abuses.

George Kent, a political counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok, read a statement on behalf of the U.S. government.

"Like Nelson Mandela 20 years ago when he walked out of prison, and a now prosperous South Africa successfully hosting the World Cup, Daw Suu could be the greatest possible partner for the regime to manage a successful transition to a better future without recriminations or revenge," he said.

The statement also says the United States stands in solidarity with the people of Burma to honor Aung San Suu Kyi's non-violent struggle for democracy and that it was tragic the military government saw her as an obstacle rather than the key to peace and prosperity.

Respected by many

Aung San Suu Kyi is believed to be one of the few figures in Burma respected by democracy advocates and various ethnic groups opposed to the government.

Zipporah Sein is general secretary of the Karen National Union, the political wing of one of the largest ethnic groups fighting against Burma's military.

"The people of Burma will remain in danger unless the national reconciliation and genuine dialogue begin," Sein said. "If the military regime continue refuse totally, we call on the international community to denounce the election and not to recognize the results of the election."

Upcoming election

The government says the parliamentary elections, which it has yet to schedule, are part of a road map to democracy.

But critics say they are designed to legitimize military rule.

A military-drafted constitution guarantees them a quarter of all seats in parliament even before elections.

Military leaders have taken off their uniforms to contest the remaining seats as civilians but are widely believed to remain loyal to the military.

In May the government dissolved Aung San Suu Kyi's NLD for refusing to expel her and other political prisoners from the party and participate in the elections.

The NLD won Burma's last elections in 1990 but the military ignored the results.