KENYAN environmentalist and feminist Wangari Maathai, who won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday, joins an eminent list of men and women who have campaigned tirelessly against long odds and stood up courageously to cruel dictators. For some, winning the prize was an affirmation of success already achieved; for others, the prize conveyed a kind of protection and provided a spur to the cause. But one woman on the list -- one of the most courageous -- remains a prisoner today. At a time of celebration, Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma has, 13 years after becoming a Nobel Peace laureate, very little to celebrate. Her continuing imprisonment should be taken as a rebuke by everyone in the "international community" who claims to care about freedom, democracy and human rights.
Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of the hero of Burma's independence, is herself a reluctant heroine. She assumed the role of pro-democracy leader in 1988, when demonstrating students and others resisting Burma's dictatorship demanded it. In 1990, her party won four out of every five parliamentary seats in a national election, even though she was already under house arrest. But Burma's dictators never honored the people's wishes, and many leaders of the National League for Democracy remain in prison today. Many more have been tortured and killed, and Aung San Suu Kyi herself is under house arrest, cut off from supporters at home and overseas.
Directly responsible for this are the corrupt generals who rule her once-promising Southeast Asian nation with brutality and incompetence. But others share in the blame. The United States has imposed sanctions, as called for by Burma's democrats, but their effectiveness is limited by Europe's commerce-motivated reluctance to follow suit. The European Council, after a number of false starts, has threatened to take action this week. We'll see. Burma's Southeast Asian neighbors believed that "engagement" would begin to civilize Burma's junta, but so far the only result of their policy has been to make them look weak. Meanwhile U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan's personal representative to Burma has failed to achieve anything; it's time for Mr. Annan to get more involved.
U.S. and British troubles in Iraq have shown the difficulty of imposing democracy through force, for which France and Germany claim vindication. But implicit in their opposition to the Iraq war was a belief that diplomacy, pressure and other means can succeed. Burma would be a good place for them to start proving that point.