Image: Aung San Suu Kyi
Myanmar News Agency  /  AFP - Getty Images file
Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, seen at a January meeting with a Myanmar government minister, has been detained for more than 12 of the past 18 years.
updated 5/28/2008 3:43:22 PM ET 2008-05-28T19:43:22

Outrage was expressed Wednesday at a decision by Myanmar's military government to extend the detention of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi — days after donors pledged large sums of money to help the country's cyclone victims.

The United States, France and Australia were among countries issuing angry statements about the junta's move to keep the Nobel Peace laureate under house arrest for a sixth straight year.

She has been held for more than 12 of the past 18 years and serves as a symbol of the regime's heavy-handed intolerance of opposition.

"This measure testifies to the junta's absence of will to cooperate with the international community," French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said in a statement.

Free political prisoners
He called on the government to "free without delay" Suu Kyi and other political prisoners and opposition members being held.

Many nations critical of Myanmar's human rights record had pushed politics aside to help victims of Cyclone Nargis, which ravaged the country's Irrawaddy delta nearly a month ago, killing more than 78,000 and leaving about 1.5 million homeless. Representatives from 50 nations pledged up to $150 million on Sunday, while remaining quiet about Suu Kyi's plight.

Some of those countries expressed frustration Wednesday, a day after the junta extended her detention amid the international community's outpouring of goodwill.

"Given the terrible human tragedy that has unfolded in Burma, the Australian government has recently tempered its remarks so far as the Burmese military regime has been concerned," said Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith. "But this particular matter cannot go without comment."

He expressed "regret" over Suu Kyi's extended detention in the country previously known as Burma.

Myanmar law not being followed
Her National League for Democracy party denounced the extension Wednesday as illegal, saying it would launch an appeal. Party spokesman Nyan Win said the regime should also open a public hearing on the case.

Under Myanmar law, anyone held for five years must be released or put on trial. The regime has not officially announced its decision to extend her detention or explained why it is violating its own law. A government official confirmed the extension of Suu Kyi's house arrest on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg said in a statement he was "outraged" by the news.

In Washington, U.S. President Bush said Tuesday he was "deeply troubled" by it, but stressed the U.S. would continue to provide aid to cyclone survivors. He called on the junta to release all political prisoners and to begin a genuine dialogue with Suu Kyi, leading to a transition to democracy.

The regime's move comes a week after U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visited the isolationist country and announced he had made progress with its ruling general, freeing up a logjam of aid and foreign experts that has been restricted from entering Myanmar's hard-hit delta.

Regret over junta's decision
Ban said he briefly touched on politics during his meetings in Myanmar. Back in New York he expressed regret at the junta's decision.

"The sooner restrictions on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and other political figures are lifted, the sooner Myanmar will be able to move towards inclusive national reconciliation, the restoration of democracy and full respect for human rights," he said Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the U.N. said some of its foreign staffers have begun moving into the delta and emergency food supplies are being ferried in on its helicopters.

The French warship Mistral arrived Wednesday off the shore of neighboring Thailand, to unload some 1,000 tons of humanitarian supplies for shipment by the U.N. to Myanmar.

The regime has forbidden direct delivery of aid by French, U.S. and British military ships, which have been standing by off Myanmar's coast since shortly after the cyclone struck. Myanmar's state media has voiced fears of a U.S. invasion to grab the country's oil reserves.

However, Ban said Myanmar's government appears to be living up to its pledge to open up to foreign aid workers.

"I hope — and I believe — that this marks a new spirit of cooperation between Myanmar and the international community as a whole," he said.

Myanmar's leaders are leery of foreign aid workers and international agencies because they fear an influx of outsiders could undermine their control. The junta is also hesitant to have its people see aid coming directly from countries such as the United States, which it has long treated as a hostile power.

But the ruling generals regard Suu Kyi, daughter of the country's martyred independence leader Gen. Aung San, as the biggest threat to their power.

She was awarded her Nobel prize in absentia in 1991 for her nonviolent attempts at promoting democracy. Suu Kyi's latest period of detention started in May 2003.

U.S. Navy ready to withdraw ships
Meanwhile, the senior commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific says the Navy probably will withdraw a group of naval vessels from waters off the coast of Myanmar within days unless the government allows the ships to offload their relief supplies for cyclone victims.

Navy Adm. Timothy Keating, chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, said Wednesday he would discuss the matter later this week with Defense Secretary Robert Gates in Singapore, where they will attend an international security conference.

"Absent a green light from Burmese officials, I don't think she will be there for weeks," Keating told a Pentagon news conference, referring to the Essex. "Days, and then we'll see."

The admiral said the Myanmar authorities' refusal to let the Navy provide relief aid is frustrating. He described the sailors and Marines aboard the Essex as "desperate" to provide help.

The Myanmar government has allowed a limited number of U.S. Air Force C-130s to bring in water and other relief supplies from a base in Thailand. Keating said 70 such flights have been flown thus far.

Accompanying the Essex in waters off Myanmar are the USS Juneau, the USS Harper's Ferry and the USS Mustin. The Essex has 23 helicopters aboard, including 19 capable of lifting cargo from ship to shore, as well as 1,500 Marines. U.S. officials have proposed using the helicopters to distribute relief aid from the Rangoon airport to outlying areas closer to the cyclone victims.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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