This month, Burmese pro-democracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi marked another birthday in detention. She was first arrested by Burma's military junta in 1989 and has spent most of the intervening years in the regime's custody. In a written statement, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, Aung San Suu Kyi has been "denied her liberty and fundamental political and civil rights by Burma's military rulers. This deplorable situation," said Secretary Rice, "must end."
Aung San Suu Kyi has devoted most of her adult life to bringing democratic change to Burma. In one of her most famous speeches, Aung San Suu Kyi said, "It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it." In 1988, the Burmese military took power in a coup. In May of 1990, Aung San Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy, won an overwhelming victory in parliamentary elections. However, the junta refused to honor the results and instead imprisoned many political activists. Today, there are approximately two-thousand political prisoners in Burma. Most of them, according to a recent U.N. report, are being held under appalling conditions.
In May of this year, the Burmese military junta held an illegitimate referendum on a draft constitution. The referendum was conducted in an environment of fear and intimidation. The regime criminalized criticism of the referendum and further restricted freedom of speech, assembly, and association.
Recently, Burma's military government has backtracked even on the modest steps it had taken -- naming a liaison to meet regularly with Aung San Suu Kyi and allowing her to meet with her colleagues in Burma's National League for Democracy. There have been no meetings with either since January. Aung San Suu Kyi has also been denied regular access to medical care and legal counsel.
Rather than risk more massive demonstrations like the ones last September, the Burmese government should act now and release all political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi. Moreover, the military junta should begin a dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi and other democratic and ethnic minority leaders on a transition to democracy.