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The long sentence

india Updated: Jun 18, 2009 21:41 IST

Today, myanmar’s imprisoned leader and the co-founder of the country’s opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), Aung San Suu Kyi will mark her 64th birthday. Suu Kyi is one of the world’s best-known political figures and campaigners for human rights. She has been enduring unofficial detention, house arrest and restrictions on her movement for the past 14 years, all aimed at preventing her from becoming the national leader of Myanmar.

Suu Kyi, the world’s only imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner, has committed no crime; she is a victim herself. The United Nations has ruled that her detention is illegal under international law and also under Burmese law. The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has also asked the Myanmar dictatorship to release her.

But the military dictatorship is now using a new way to keep Suu Kyi in prison. Her current house detention order was set to expire on May 27, 2009. However, on May 18, she was put on trial again and charged with breaching the terms of her house arrest after an American, John Yettaw, swam to her house and refused to leave. The dictatorship is using Yettaw’s visit as an opportunity to extend her detention. The trial is under way and her detention could be extended by five years.

Suu Kyi was previously held under house arrest on account of her prominent role in opposition politics between 1989 and 1995 and between 2000 and 2002. During the duration of her house arrest, the authorities have twice amended the legislation under which she is held so that she could be detained for a longer period without any charge or trial. Even when she was not under official house arrest, Suu Kyi had her freedom of movement heavily restricted: the authorities blockaded roads, arrested those seeking to meet her and denied permission to family members, including her critically ill husband, to visit the country to see her.

The severity of these sentences flies in the face of the government’s claims that its new constitution and plans for elections in 2010 are genuine efforts towards increasing political participation. They also serve as a powerful reminder that the government is still ignoring calls from the international community to improve the country’s democratic rights record.

Whether her 64th birth year be free from prison and detention depends on the UNSC, China, Japan, the Asean countries and India, who are best placed to put the necessary pressure on the Myanmar government. The release of Suu Kyi must not wait for the conclusion of any political or diplomatic process.

Celebrities like George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and even British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, are asking for Suu Kyi’s release. Major human rights organisations and groups are campaigning for one issue: to write a 64-word message on Aung San Suu Kyi’s 64th birthday for a free birth year. Will we all be a part of this?

Mukul Sharma is an independent journalist. His forthcoming book is Human Rights Footprints: Indian Crossovers in a Globalised World