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Peaceful Protests Mark Anniversary of Burma's Pro-Democracy Crackdown - 2003-08-08

Human rights groups marked the 15th anniversary of Burma's military suppression of pro-democracy demonstrations with peaceful protests Friday. The protests come as pressure continues on Burma's military government to release opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Human rights activists, some dressed in leg irons, demonstrated in Bangkok Friday to mark the military crackdown in 1988 when hundreds - possibly thousands - of protesters were killed by the Burmese armed forces.

With placards reviving memories of the crackdown, protesters called for political reform in Burma. They also demanded that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations or ASEAN, maintain pressure on Burma to free detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Debbie Stothard, speaking for a grouping of regional human rights organizations, argues that ASEAN should become more actively involved in conflicts like the one in Burma.

"It's been 15 years since the '88 uprising, it's been 36 years since ASEAN was formed," she said. "It's about time ASEAN took a stronger proactive role in resolving conflicts in this region rather than ignoring them until they blow up out of proportion and require intervention from the outside."

Burma has been ruled by the military since 1962. In 1988, months of student protests evolved into anti-government demonstrations involving millions of people.

That August 8, the army opened fire on the protesters. Opposition supporters say several hundred were killed, while the military says the toll was only a few dozen.

Rioting increased, and in late September of 1988 the military regrouped and put the demonstrations down violently. This time, according to diplomats, as many as 3,000 were killed.

In 1990, the military allowed general elections to take place, and Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, or NLD, won in a landslide.

The government refused to allow the NLD to take power, and Aung San Suu Kyi spent much of the following decade under house arrest. She was released last year amid attempts at reconciliation, but on May 30, while touring northern Burma, her convoy was attacked by government supporters.

The government put her in what it calls "protective custody," and has since come under widespread international pressure to release her.