Aung San Suu Kyi, the courageous leader of Burma’s democratic opposition, known simply as the Lady, will spend her 60th birthday this Sunday in captivity. Though her National League for Democracy won a landslide election in 1990, the ruling junta nullified the results, seized power and placed Ms. Suu Kyi under house arrest. There she has remained, on and off, for 15 years.
Despite her years in captivity, this brave woman remains resolute in her commitment to democracy and justice for the Burmese people. Through her words and actions, Ms. Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize recipient, has demonstrated time and again that freedom is her life’s calling.
The world knows well the gross violations of human rights committed by the State Peace and Development Council in Rangoon. The junta routinely jails democracy activists, sometimes resorting to torture and murder.
The Burmese military employs rape as a weapon of war, destroying the lives of innocent ethnic minority women and girls. Child soldiers are pressed into the military’s rank and file. Narcotics production remains a profitable business, with illegal drugs flowing across Burma’s borders into neighboring countries. Refugees continue to cross its borders as well, and HIV/AIDS is on the rise.
Under the junta’s misrule, Burma has become a failed state and a pariah in the world. Its economy lies in ruins, its meager social services benefit only the military elite, and a climate of fear pervades Burmese society. The export of drugs, refugees and disease presents immediate and growing dangers to countries in the region, and a series of recent bomb blasts in Rangoon has heightened instability.
Burma’s ruler, General Than Shwe, displays a thuggish mentality that holds little hope for any peaceful reconciliation inside his country. Instead, Ms. Suu Kyi shines as the country’s bright light for a free tomorrow. Together with the NLD and Burma’s ethnic minorities, Ms. Suu Kyi has displayed infinite patience, dignity and wisdom in dealing with one of the world’s worst regimes.
As Ms. Suu Kyi marks her 60th birthday, it is time for the international community to press anew for her immediate and unconditional release. She, like all prisoners of conscience languishing in Burmese prisons, should be freed and allowed full access to diplomats, NGOs and journalists who wish to meet with her.
In pursuit of this goal, the international community should take a number of steps. The U.S. Congress should quickly pass — and the president should sign — legislation extending import sanctions against Burma. The State Department should redouble its efforts in Europe and Asia to raise the issue of Burma, and to encourage additional sanctions against the junta. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations will hold its 12th Regional Forum Post Ministerial Meeting in Laos next month, an opportunity for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to promote a common approach to Burma among our Asean and EU partners.
Finally, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has an opportunity to demonstrate personal leadership on this issue. He should call for the Security Council to address the threat that the Burmese regime poses to its people and to the region, and demand a meaningful reconciliation process that includes the full participation of the NLD and ethnic minorities.
Some in the international community fail to see the urgency of restoring just rule in Burma, believing that the passage of time will eventually undermine the SPDC’s tyranny. But as we see today, the SPDC could just as easily tighten its grip as lighten its repression. We must stand behind Ms. Suu Kyi and other Burmese democrats to ensure that time abets freedom, not despotism and misery.
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The world has seen an astonishing hunger for freedom recently, in varied countries across the globe. The Burmese people hunger for democracy and justice no less than their brothers and sisters in Ukraine, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Iraq. As we supported the legitimate aspirations of the people in those nations, so too must we seek freedom for all those denied it in Burma. Dr. Martin Luther King observed that “right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.” Right will ultimately triumph in Burma — the question is not if but when. The international community would do well to combine its efforts to hasten that joyous day. That would truly be a fitting present for Ms. Suu Kyi.
Messrs. McConnell and McCain are Republican senators from Kentucky and Arizona respectively.