Twelve Years and Counting for Burma's Suu Kyi
CANBERRA - Australia slapped financial sanctions on Myanmar's generals and their families on Wednesday as supporters of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi marked her 12 years in captivity with protests in 12 cities across the world.
Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said the measures, in response to last month's bloody crackdown on the biggest democracy protests in two decades, would hit 418 people, including junta leader Senior General Than Shwe.
"These new measures are designed to put further pressure on the regime and its supporters while avoiding harm to the people of Burma," Downer said in a statement.
Given that two-way trade with the former Burma amounted to just A$54 million ($48 million) in 2006, the measures appear to be aimed mainly at junta family members going to Australian schools and universities.
Mirroring tough restrictions imposed by the United States, the sanctions are a rare example of a government in Asia taking concrete action against the junta, which has so far only come under verbal pressure from its regional neighbors.
However, the marking of 12 cumulative years in custody for Nobel laureate Suu Kyi gave an added twist to street protests against the generals as U.N. special envoy Ibrahim Gambari started the Chinese leg of a regional tour.
Twelve white-robed protesters in Suu Kyi masks stood outside the Chinese embassy in Bangkok, trying to force Beijing in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics to nudge its wayward southern neighbor and friend towards reform.
"China, China, go, go," the protesters chanted, along with "Free Burma" and "Free Aung San Suu Kyi".
Protests at 12 noon local time were planned for 12 cities -- London, Paris, Berlin, Dublin, Vienna, Sydney, Washington, Toronto, New York, Brasilia, Bangkok and Cape Town.
Suu Kyi, 62, won the Nobel Peace Prize while under house arrest in 1991, a year after her National League for Democracy (NLD) won an election landslide only to be denied power by the army that has ruled unchecked since a 1962 coup.
Six female fellow peace laureates called on the world not to ease up on the junta after its crackdown on huge pro-democracy protests led by Buddhist monks. State media said 10 people died, although Western governments say the toll is probably far higher.
"The detention of Aung San Suu Kyi is the most visible manifestation of the regime's brutality, but it is only the tip of the iceberg," the six wrote in a letter in Britain's Guardian newspaper.
A major arms supplier and trading partner, China is one of the few countries thought to have any sway over the isolated Myanmar regime, which has lived with U.S. and European sanctions for 10 years with little apparent discomfort.
How it will use this influence is the key question. Assistant Foreign Minister He Yafei was offering few clues when he met Gambari in Beijing. "The Chinese government attaches tremendous importance to your visit," He said.
India promised Gambari it would help push the generals towards democracy but baulked at committing to a tougher line against a country New Delhi sees as a key potential supplier of minerals and energy.
Singapore, where the generals go for medical treatment and their wives go for shopping, is opposed to action even though as current chairman of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) it expressed "revulsion" at the crackdown.
"We should keep up external pressure but the evidence so far has showed that economic sanctions have not worked in Myanmar," second finance minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam told reporters in New York at a meeting of key ASEAN officials.
However, the generals have made a highly conditional offer of talks with Suu Kyi and agreed to bring forward a planned return visit by Gambari to the first week of November, the U.N. said.
They have also invited the U.N.'s point man on human rights in Myanmar to visit in mid-November, the first time Paulo Sergio Pinheiro has been offered a visa since 2003.
Pinheiro said it was "an important sign that the government wants to engage again in constructive dialogue".
© 2007 Reuters