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Burma Releases 90 Pro-Democracy Activists - 2003-07-23

Burma, which has been under intense international pressure to release Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, says it has freed more than 90 of her supporters. They had been arrested with her in a May 30 clash with pro-government supporters.

Burma's military government announced it has released more than 90 pro-democracy supporters since June 26. All are supporters of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy, or NLD.

They were arrested during a May 30 clash between opposition and pro-government supporters.

But a statement sent to foreign embassies in Rangoon made no mention of Aung San Suu Kyi, or when she would be freed. She remains under detention at an undisclosed location, despite intense international pressure for her release.

Aung Zaw, editor of a Thai-based magazine, The Irrawaddy, said releasing opposition supporters shows the Burmese government wants to placate the international community.

"I think it is a sign they are trying to ease the ASEAN [Association of South East Asian Nations] and international pressure coming on to the military government," he said.

Aung Zaw says the crackdown is continuing, with students and NLD supporters being watched and questioned, adding to what he calls a climate of fear.

The pressure on Burma's military government to release Aung San Suu Kyi is now coming from Asia, which until recently has asked the international community for patience. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is calling for Burma's expulsion from the Association of South East Asian Nations, or ASEAN, if the opposition leader is not released soon. The United States says it is ready to implement tougher economic sanctions against Burma, while Japan is threatening to halt fresh aid.

Aung Zaw remains pessimistic about the release of Aung San Suu Kyi any time soon, saying that some fear the military government may prosecute her.

"A lot of people in Burma are skeptical of her release, because they think the military will keep her quite some time - three, six months, a year, or more than a year," he said. "We don't know. There's even strong speculation they might put her on trial."

For two years, Burma has been on the path to political reform, backed by the United Nations and the regional community. But political dialogue ground to a halt after the violent May 30 clash in northern Burma.

Burma has been under the rule of the military since 1962. The present government has been in power since 1988, and has refused to hand over control to the NLD, despite a landslide election victory in 1990.