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Myanmar Extends Sentence for Democracy Activist


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

In this part of the program, we'll get an update on two advocates for democracy. One is in prison and the other is under house arrest.

We begin in Myanmar, that's the country that some still call Burma because the name was changed by its military rulers. Just a few days ago, a United Nations official declared that the country's rulers were ready to turn a new page. But then, last weekend the government announced another year of house arrest for Aung San Suu Kyi. Since 1990, she has spent most of her time in confinement, even though she won an election, and even though, she was awarded a Nobel Prize.

To learn more, we called Emma Larkin, which is a pseudonym that she uses, so that she is not prevented from reporting in Burma. She's been tracking the government's decision.

Ms. EMMA LARKIN (Author, Finding George Orwell in Burma): I've spoken to a few people in Burma, but I doubt very much that many people in Burma are surprised by this. The international community, I think, was surprised because the U.N. under secretary general of Political Affairs had had a visit with Suu Kyi, and this was unheard of, because she's been more isolated than ever for the past three years. And this gave cause for hope.

INSKEEP: When you walk down a Burmese street, do you immediately get a sense of the kind of government that is ruling the place?

Ms. LARKIN: No, not at all. And this is one of the really insidious things about Burma, I think, is that Burma's beginning to have quite a striving tourism industry, as people can come to the country. And you're restricted from where you can travel, so if you travel within the central areas of Burma, you really would never see any evidence of the oppression. I mean, you walk down the streets and people are laughing and chatting and going to movies. It looks very normal.

INSKEEP: Now, I want to understand how the country is run, getting beyond Aung San Suu Kyi and the way that she has been treated, what are some other violations of which this government has been accused?

Ms. LARKIN: Well I think, if you take an urban area, a city like Yangon, in the capital, it's a place where your every move, in a sense, is monitored. If you're politically active in any way, if you've had any dealings with somebody who's been a political prisoner, you'll be on a watch list and your movements will be watched.

And then, if your friends suspect that you're on such a list, they will start to worry about associating with you or you may start to worry that they would inform upon you, if you said something. So it's a really untrusting environment.

INSKEEP: And yet, there was something that caused a senior United Nations official, just a few days ago, to think that things were changing. Is anything changing over time?

Ms. LARKIN: I had to take critique of what happened in that meeting, because I don't know but it did seem to me difficult to be hopeful in any way--if you're looking at say what's happening, while the regime is at the table with the U.N. Envoy in the ethnic areas of Burma. It's begun one of the most brutal, dry season offenses against the (unintelligible) nationals. Some 16,000 villagers have had to flee their homes; their villages have been torched. I read recently that about 70 percent of these people are women and children.

So you're dealing with a certainly aggressive group, the Burmese military. I think it would be simplistic to say that there would be hope for change in just an hour-long meeting with a member of the United Nations.

INSKEEP: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called for Aung San Suu Kyi's unconditional release. Does the United States have any leverage here at all?

Ms. LARKIN: I think the Burmese regime is famously xenophobic. It resents interference from outside. I think it's a good and strong stance to take, but I do query what effect it would have at the end of the day.

INSKEEP: We've been speaking with Emma Larkin, that's a pseudonym for the author of Finding George Orwell in Burma. She's an American journalist. Thanks very much.

Ms. LARKIN: Thank you.

Ms. INSKEEP: And for the record here's what Secretary of State Rice said about the Myanmar government.

Secretary CONDOLEEZZA RICE (Secretary of State, United States): We also call upon the Burmese Regime to end its attacks on civilians, to cease its persecution of ethnic minorities, and to return the country to democracy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

United States & World Morning Edition