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20 June 2009

Suu Kyi celebrates 64th birthday in prison

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Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi shared rice and chocolate cake with her prison guards to celebrate her 64th birthday Friday, as global condemnation of her trial galvanised rallies in capitals around the world, the Associated Press reported.

European Union nations marked the Nobel Peace Prize laureate's birthday by warning they would step up sanctions against Myanmar's military government if she is not released.

Suu Kyi, who is being held in a "guest house" at Yangon's notorious Insein Prison, faces up to five years in jail on charges of violating the terms of her house arrest after an uninvited American man swam to her tightly guarded lakeside home and stayed two days.

Several miles (kilometers) from the prison, hundreds of supporters released 64 sparrows and 10 doves at the headquarters of her National League for Democracy party and sang "Happy Birthday."

Suu Kyi's lawyer, Nyan Win, took cakes, orchids and "birthday messages from her friends and the international community" to her at the prison along with 50 lunch boxes of rice to share with the prison staff.

"She really appreciates the efforts and said she was sorry she wasn't able to thank everyone individually," he said.

Suu Kyi has now spent 14 birthdays in detention. Friday's birthday stirred an outpouring of support from Hollywood stars including Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts, celebrities Madonna and David Beckham, and many Western governments.

Many posted online messages on social networking sites and videos on YouTube in what human rights groups called an unprecedented and enormously powerful tool to highlight her struggle.

Concerts, candlelight vigils and other gatherings for Suu Kyi were scheduled in more than 20 cities worldwide, including Bangkok, Dublin, London, Paris, Prague, Sydney, Tokyo and New York.

"We must not stand by as she is silenced again. Now is the time for the international community to speak with one voice," said part of a message on a Web site - - signed by dozens of dignitaries and celebrities. They included George Clooney, Sarah Jessica Parker, Robert De Niro, Nicole Kidman, director Steven Spielberg and fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureates Elie Wiesel and Desmond Tutu.

"Aung San Suu Kyi is an inspiration to her country and to the rest of the world," Paul McCartney said in a message on the site.

The Web site is the online hub for a campaign - "64 words for Aung San Suu Kyi" - organized by a coalition of human rights groups including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Burma Campaign UK and Not On Our Watch, a charity founded by Clooney, Pitt and other actors.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said in a statement Thursday that Myanmar should drop its "unjustified and indefensible charges" against Suu Kyi. He said the United States looks "forward to the day when she will be able to celebrate her birthday in freedom."

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said in Brussels it was a "tragedy" that Suu Kyi spent her birthday in prison as the military junta "continues its absurd and contemptible sham trial of her."

EU leaders issued a stern declaration saying Myanmar's credibility in holding elections next year would be undermined unless she is released.They called on the military regime to undertake "a genuine transition to democracy."

Myanmar has been ruled by the military since 1962. The current junta came to power in 1988 after crushing a pro-democracy uprising.

Small protests were held Friday outside Myanmar embassies in Bangkok, Manila, Seoul and New Delhi.

Three dozen supporters in Manila formed the words "not guilty" with a wreath of roses in front of the Myanmar Embassy and sang the Beatles song "Imagine."

Many of Suu Kyi's supporters believe the junta is using the visit by the uninvited American to her house as a pretext to keep her in detention through next year's elections. Her party won Myanmar's last elections in 1990 but was not allowed to take power by the military.

Judges are expected to deliver a guilty verdict, since courts in Myanmar are known for handing out harsh sentences to political dissidents.

Suu Kyi has spent more than 13 of the last 19 years in detention, mostly under house arrest.


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