Subject: IPS: Suu Kyi's Spirit Can Never be Killed - East Timor's Xanana

BURMA: Suu Kyi's Spirit Can Never be Killed - East Timor's Xanana

Sonny Inbaraj

BANGKOK, Dec 3 (IPS) - Despite walking with kings and world leaders, East Timor's President Xanana Gusmao still hasn't lost his common touch. And neither has he forgotten his days as a political prisoner when he made a passionate plea for the release of Burma's detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

''I appeal to the junta to release Aung San Suu Kyi. I'm not talking as the president of East Timor to pressure the (Burmese) junta, but I'm talking as a former political prisoner asking the junta to reflect on this,'' Gusmao said in his address to the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand.

''They can never kill her mind, even if she's put in a very, very, difficult position in detention...They can never kill her spirit, her sense of principles or her sense of freedom,'' he said on Thursday evening.

Gusmao was on his way to Washington DC to receive the W. Averell Harriman Democracy Award from the National Democratic Institute. The East Timor president's co-awardees are former Philippines president Corazon Aquino; former Czech Republic president Vaclav Havel; former Malian President Alpha Oumar Konare, who now chairs the African Union; President Mikheil Saakashvili of the Republic of Georgia and Chilean President Ricardo Lagos.

The Burmese generals on Monday prolonged by another 12 months the house arrest of Suu Kyi, who has been detained for a total of nine years since 1989.

The move prompted a wave of international condemnation, with United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan and various governments, including those of the United States, Britain and Germany heaping scorn on Burma's ruling junta.

''I would like to express my concern about this extension of Suu Kyi's detention. I hope my voice as a former political prisoner can help the (Burmese) government think about this appeal,'' said Gusmao.

On May 20, 2002, Gusmao - the ex-guerilla leader and political prisoner - was sworn in the first president of the newly independent East Timor after getting an overwhelming 90 percent of the ballot in the Apr. 14 presidential election.

In late August 1999, East Timor voted in a U.N.-sponsored referendum to break away from Indonesia, setting off a wave of violence by pro-Jakarta militants and Indonesian security forces, which killed an untold number and caused hundreds of thousands to flee to neighbouring West Timor.

Gusmao was appointed head of the Fretilin party in 1978 after Nicolau Lobato was killed by the Indonesian military. He was elected commander-in-chief of the Falintil resistance forces in 1981.

On Nov. 20, 1992, he was captured by the Indonesian military and taken to Jakarta, where he was sentenced to life imprisonment. It was later commuted to 20 years.

Despite Gusmao's jailing, world leaders had requested they meet with him during visits to Indonesia, then under the autocratic rule of President Suharto. Former South African President Nelson Mandela met with him for two hours in July 1997, in a historic visit that dramatically raised international awareness of the situation in East Timor.

''When Mandela wanted to visit me in (Jakarta's) Cipinang jail, he went to Suharto to ask for permission. Suharto first said no. Mandela then replied: 'President, I was also a political prisoner and the (South African) apartheid regime allowed other people to visit me,'' reminiscised Gusmao.

''Of course, Suharto could not avoid the meeting between me and Mandela,'' he added.

The East Timor president said he understood what Suu Kyi was going through in detention and urged her to be strong.

''In prison they would try to kill your mind and freedom of spirit. But it is always futile,'' he said. ''They might kill you physically, if they wanted, but they can never take away your sense of freedom for your people and the sense of fighting for justice. In this case I know Suu Kyi will be strong and I ask her to keep being strong.''

Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD), began her latest period under house arrest in May 2003 following a violent clash between her supporters and a pro-junta mob. Her party said on Monday her arrest had been extended for another year.

It is Suu Kyi's third period of house arrest since she took up the democracy struggle in 1988. In 1991, the NLD leader was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights.

Also on Thursday, three of Suu Kyi's fellow Nobel Peace laureates joined the international chorus of protest over her extended house arrest, after a peace seminar in Kenya.

''We demand that she be freed and freedom and democracy returns to her country,'' this year's Nobel Peace laureate Wangari Maathai told reporters in the capital Nairobi.

Maathai, a Kenyan woman who won this year's peace prize for decades of environmental work, like her Burmese counterpart, has been the target of state brutality for championing multi-party democracy.

Iranian lawyer and human rights activist Shirn Ebadi who won the 2003 Nobel peace price for work on behalf of women and children in her country said: ''It is a shame that Suu Kyi will remain in prison. We are calling for her unconditional release.''

Jody Williams of the U.S. who in 1997 won the Nobel accolade jointly with the group she coordinates, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines told reporters she visited Suu Kyi in February last year and was told to ask the ''international community to isolate the dictatorial regime in Burma ... until they accept democracy for its people as well as release her.''

''We must do more to support her,'' said Williams. (END/2004)

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