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Suu Kyi ‘on hunger strike’

August 27, 2008

From The Independent
By Andrew Buncombe

Supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi believe the imprisoned Burmese democracy leader may have launched a hunger strike over the military regime’s refusal to hold talks about democratic reforms.

Members of her National League for Democracy (NLD) said the 63-year-old had last accepted a weekly delivery of food on 15 August and told the young party members who delivered it not to bring any more. An NLD spokesman in Burma said he could not confirm whether she had stopped eating but that bags of food delivered to a checkpoint outside her house in Rangoon had not been picked up.

“If Aung San Suu Kyi continues to refuse food from her comrades, her health will be of serious concern,” the NLD’s office in neighbouring Thailand, said in a statement. “Two people living with [her] are also refusing food. The international community’s immediate action is necessary.”

The Nobel Laureate has spent 13 of the last 19 years either in prison or under house arrest. Since May 2003 she has been detained at her lakeside home where she lives with her assistant and another female party member. She was last seen in public when she briefly appeared at the gate of her heavily guarded house as a crowd of Buddhist monks gathered outside during last September’s democracy demonstrations.

Her party colleagues said Ms Suu Kyi recently told the regime she wished to renew negotiations in order to help bring about national reconciliation. She also said she wanted a satellite dish installed at her home and for her assistant, Khin Win, to be able to leave whenever she wants.

At the same time, she last week cancelled a series of meetings with the UN’s special envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, during his six day visit to Burma. The Nigerian diplomat was criticised by Burma’s political opposition and accused of trying to appease the country’s military regime rather than push it towards making democratic reforms

The junta that has ruled Burma for two decades is determined to ensure Ms Suu Kyi remains in detention. It knows that if she were set free she would be the only person around which the public might rally in sufficient numbers to challenge the military authorities.

To those ends, in May the regime extended her current detention term by another year. They have also severely restricted the number of people allowed to see her. While her doctor and lawyer were permitted to visit her last week, that was her first medical check-up since February and the first meeting with her legal representative since 2004.

The military junta yesterday claimed that the detained politician had not started a hunger strike. “It is just rumours, it is not true,” a government official told the Agence France-Presse. “We have not got any political demands from her.”

But campaigners in the West said it was possible that Ms Suu Kyi had decided to turn to such drastic measures. “There have been rumours like this before which have turned out not to be true, but given the way Gambari seems to favour the regime one could imagine that she is feeling very frustrated,” said Mark Farmaner of the Burma Campaign UK. “Gambari does not have the respect of the [military regime] and is seen as biased by the democracy movement. It is hard to see how he can carry on as UN envoy.”

In 1990 Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD won an overwhelming victory in national elections. But the military authorities ignored the result and began rounding up political opponents. Human rights groups believe that up to 200 people may have been killed by the authorities when they crushed last year’s demonstrations. Hundreds of political prisoners and Buddhist monks remain in jail.

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