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Calls Continue for Release of Burmese Opposition Leader - 2003-09-27

Burma's democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi spent her first day since May 30 out of formal government custody, recuperating at home from surgery and under new house arrest restrictions. Both Western and Asian governments are calling on Burma's military government to take the next step and release her unconditionally.

The United States and Britain called for the 58-year-old opposition leader to be released from house arrest immediately, and expressed concern for the whereabouts of other detained members of her political party, the National League for Democracy, or NLD.

Indonesia and Thailand, fellow members with Burma in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, called Aung San Suu Kyi's move to house arrest a positive step, but also said it was not enough.

Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman Sihasak Phuangketkeow said he expects further "progress and positive developments."

"Well of course our position is the same with all the ASEAN countries. We have a position on this that we would like to see the lifting of all the restrictions on Aung San Suu Kyi as soon as possible. We see this recent development as a step in that direction," he said.

Indonesia's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Marty Natalegawa, was quoted as calling the move "not insignificant," but he expressed the hope that Aung San Suu Kyi would be released fully before the ASEAN summit, which is set to open on the Indonesian island of Bali on October 7.

The democracy activist underwent major surgery for an unspecified condition eight days ago. Until that point, she had been detained by the Burmese government in a secret location since May 30, when a pro-government mob attacked her and her supporters during a political tour of northern Burma.

That incident also prompted a government crackdown on the NLD. The government closed many of the party's offices and arrested most senior members. That in turn prompted the United States and the European Union to expand economic sanctions against Burma, and to call repeatedly for her release.

Some analysts see Aung San Suu Kyi's release from formal detention to hospital to house arrest as a face-saving way for Burma's military leaders to accede to international pressure.

Burmese opposition groups say the government is playing games, however, and caution against expectations for an immediate release. They say the democracy leader is simply back to square one.

She has spent more than half of the last 13 years under house arrest, following an overwhelming win by her NLD party in 1990 elections. The military government, known by its initials as the SPDC, refused to allow the NLD to take power.

Sunai Phasuk, of the human rights group Asia Forum, said Burma is toying with the international community. "So they can slap in the face of the U.S. that external pressure will never work in the case of Burma. It's only the Asian way that can bring about good results. So this is a very cunning diplomatic ploy of the SPDC," he said.

The United Nations special envoy to Burma, Razali Ismail, is scheduled to visit Rangoon next week in a bid to prod Rangoon towards more rapid political reform and to discuss Aung San Suu Kyi's case.