YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar’s junta extended the house arrest of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Tuesday, a move that dismayed some of the Western nations who promised millions of dollars in aid after Cyclone Nargis.
Officials drove to the Nobel laureate’s lakeside Yangon home to read out an extension order in person, said a government official, who asked not to be identified.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who just returned to New York from a weeklong aid mission in Myanmar, expressed disappointment but refrained from sharp criticism.
“I regret the decision of the government of Myanmar to extend for a second consecutive year the detention and the house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi,” Ban said.
“The sooner restrictions on Aung San Suu Kyi and other political figures are lifted, the sooner Myanmar will be able to move toward ... restoration of democracy and full respect for human rights,” he said.
He added that his special envoy for Myanmar, Ibrahim Gambari, would raise the issue of Suu Kyi with the junta.
The 62-year-old Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy party won a 1990 election by a landslide only to be denied power by the army, has now spent nearly 13 of the last 18 years under some form of arrest.
Her latest period of detention started on May 30, 2003, “for her own protection” after clashes between her supporters and pro-junta thugs in the northern town of Depayin. The last of a series of yearlong extensions expired on Tuesday.
Although few expected Suu Kyi to be released, the extension is a timely reminder of the ruling military’s refusal to make any concessions on the domestic political front despite its grudging acceptance of foreign help after the May 2 cyclone.
Hours before the extension, police arrested 20 of her party’s members who were trying to march to Suu Kyi’s home.
State-controlled media on Tuesday praised the United Nations for the help it has given to the 2.4 million people left destitute in the Irrawaddy delta, suggesting some thawing in the junta’s frosty relationship with the outside world.
The English-language New Light of Myanmar, the generals’ main mouthpiece, said U.N. agencies took prompt action to provide relief supplies after the cyclone, which left 134,000 people dead or missing.
U.S. President George W. Bush said he was “deeply troubled” by the extension of Suu Kyi’s house arrest and called for political prisoners to be freed, but State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said it would not affect U.S. cyclone aid.
Britain’s U.N. ambassador, John Sawers, said he was dismayed “the Burmese have chosen with such insensitivity to renew the house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi at a time when the world is rallying around to try to help the Burmese people.”
Three weeks after the cyclone’s 120 mph (190 kph) winds and sea surge devastated the delta, the United Nations says fewer than one in three of those most in need have received any aid.
Thousands of beggars line the roads, and droves of children shout “Just throw something!” at passing vehicles.
Witnesses say many villages have received no outside help, and the waterways of the former Burma’s “rice bowl” remain littered with bloated and rotting animal carcasses and corpses.
Much of the blame for the aid delay rests with the junta, which has been reluctant to admit a large-scale international relief effort for fear that would loosen the grip on power the army has held since a 1962 coup.
However, top diplomats who helped coordinate a donor conference in Yangon on Sunday said there were small signs of the generals overcoming their pride and paranoia.
“I can sense that there is a sense of urgency,” Surin Pitsuwan, Secretary-General of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, said in the Thai capital on Tuesday.
Washington told the Yangon conference it was ready to raise its offer of $20.5 million in aid if the junta opened up, but added it was dismayed that the generals had gone ahead with a constitutional referendum in the middle of the disaster.
The result — 92.5 percent in favor on a turnout of 98.1 percent in a poll lacking neutral monitoring — is unlikely to enhance the credibility of the generals’ seven-step “road map to democracy,” meant to culminate in elections in 2010.
After junta supremo Than Shwe promised Ban that all aid workers would get full access to the delta, foreign experts have headed out of Yangon to test whether things have changed.
U.N. humanitarian affairs chief John Holmes said in New York that there had been some improvement regarding access. Ban said he would return to Myanmar “before too long” to assess progress in the relief effort.
Myanmar embassies are also slowly granting more visas to aid workers, although the U.N.’s World Food Program, which is spearheading much of the emergency relief push, says it is coming up against reams of red tape at every turn.
“Every step has required agreement with the government, clearance from the government, approval by the government of virtually all of our actions,” said WFP spokesman Paul Risley.
Additional reporting by Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations, Nopporn Wong-Anan and Ed Davies in Bangkok; Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by Doina Chiacu