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Burma’s opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi has been honoured with an award created in memory of the assassinated former Pakistan prime minister, Benazir Bhutto.
The award was timed to coincide with Suu Kyi’s birthday on 19 June, which she spent at her lakeside Rangoon compound where she has been held under house arrest for 15 of the past 20 years.
It is the first time the Benazir Bhutto Shaheed Award for democracy, instituted by the Pakistan People’s Party, which Bhutto chaired until her death in December 2007, has been bestowed. Bhutto had become the first female prime minister of an Islamic country, and like Suu Kyi, had inherited a political legacy from her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was assassinated in 1979.
Bhutto was also hailed for her work in promoting human rights and women’s empowerment in Pakistan, but she was dismissed from office in 1990 by then-president Ghulam Ishaq Khan on charges that her family had laundered money through Swiss banks. Bhutto maintained however that the allegations were political.
She was forced into exile in 2006 after the Pakistan government, under the behest of Pervez Musharraf, then-president and head of the army, requested her arrest by Interpol. But two months after her return to Pakistan in October 2007, where she set out on the campaign trail for elections, she was killed by a gunman. The attack appeared to have been carefully planned: several bombs subsequently exploded around the car that she was travelling in as she rallied supporters.
Colleagues of Bhutto claim that on the day she was killed, she had planned to reveal evidence of what she said were plans by the ruling government to rig the elections. The allegations now hold resonance in Burma, where campaigning for elections is underway that critics of the ruling junta have decried as a sham aimed at extending military rule. Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy party won a landslide victory in the 1990 elections, is barred from participating.
But less heroic allegations link Bhutto and Burma: two years ago a Pakistani journalist, Shyam Bhatia, who knew Bhutto well published a book in which he claimed the Pakistan figurehead in 1993 had handed North Korea critical data on uranium enrichment for a bomb. Pakistan’s nuclear development programme was by then well underway, and in 1998 it tested its first nuclear weapon. Eight years later, North Korea became a nuclear power.
The allegations were based on conversations Bhatia claimed he had with Bhutto in 2003, but which were immediately rubbished by those close to her. Bhatia alleges that Bhutto told him she had handed the information over to Pyongyang as barter for new missile technology to counter India’s growing military might.
Bhatia’s work has been given credence by a number of prominent military analysts, including David Albright, founder of the Institute for Science and International Security, although Bhutto claimed that missile technology eventually obtained from North Korea was paid for in cash.
But now evidence has surfaced that North Korea, the world’s newest nuclear power, has assisted Burma in the development of an advanced weapons programme that may include trade in nuclear material. If Bhatia’s claims are true, then Bhutto may well have played a hand in the creation of a military nexus which much of the international community now fears could destabilise the Southeast Asia region.