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Burmese Opposition Leaders Renew Calls for Democracy - 2004-01-04

Leaders of Burma's opposition National League for Democracy marked Independence Day with a religious ceremony and fresh calls for national reconciliation and democracy.

National League for Democracy executives and more than 200 supporters gathered at a monastery in western Rangoon to offer prayers and renew their calls for the military to release NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi. They also demanded more progress on bringing democracy to the country.

The ceremony comes seven months after government supporters attacked a political gathering led by Aung San Suu Kyi. After that the government cracked down on the NLD, closing its offices and arresting almost three dozen of its leaders.

Some of the NLD leaders have been released, but Aung San Suu Kyi remains isolated at her home in Rangoon and other senior members remain under house arrest or are in prison.

Burma has been under military control since 1962. Although the NLD won national elections in 1990, the military has refused to hand over power.

In a statement after Sunday's Independence Day ceremony, the NLD said that for the people to enjoy the "fruits of democracy," there must be national reconciliation and political dialogue.

At Rangoon's People's Park, about 10,000 people attended a government-organized Independence Day rally. Military ruler Senior General Than Shwe called for public participation in implementing a political road map he says will lead to elections.

The government has pledged to implement a seven-point road map for reform. The prime minister, General Khin Nyunt, was quoted in state-controlled media Saturday as saying that pressure from abroad would only delay reforms.

But Debbie Stothardt, a spokeswoman for the human rights group Alternative Southeast Asian Network on Burma, says economic sanctions are needed to ensure that reforms move forward.

"We have to be cautiously optimistic," she said, "and the only way that we can make the regime deliver on its promises is for those governments, including Thailand, to ensure that the regime does what it says and does so very specifically."

The United States and other Western governments have stepped up sanctions on Burma since the crackdown on the NLD. Burma's government hopes that over the year ahead, progress on reform will lead to an easing of the international pressure and relief from the economic sanctions.