BANGKOK, Thailand -- The world's most famous political prisoner, Aung San Suu Kyi, was due to be freed from house arrest this weekend, but the international community and Burma's military junta have been focusing on aid for cyclone victims instead of her liberation.

During her more than 12 years of house arrest, Mrs. Suu Kyi has always been able to walk out of her lakeside, two-story villa in Rangoon, if she permanently leaves the Southeast Asian country which her assassinated father helped create.

If she left Burma, however, the junta would most likely never allow her to return, which is why she did not attend the funeral in England when her husband, British academic Michael Aris, died several years ago.

Now unwilling to travel to see her two adult sons in Britain, Mrs. Suu Kyi was recently barred from becoming Burma's leader after the junta pushed through, on May 10, a new constitution disqualifying candidates who have foreign relatives.

One year ago, the junta extended her house arrest for another 12 months, due to expire on Saturday (May 24).

She was being held under Burma's State Protection Law, which allows detention of anyone who is deemed a "threat to the sovereignty and security of the State, and the peace of the people".

If she is not freed, Mrs. Suu Kyi may end up celebrating her 63rd birthday in less than three weeks from now, on June 19, still under house arrest.

The junta apparently was hoping to sideline the Nobel Peace Prize laureate until she becomes too old, or ill, to rally pro-democracy activists and threaten the military's domination.

"They don't want (her) to get involved in politics," said Thailand's Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej on April 30.

"The international community might be upset about the idea, but I see nothing wrong, as the proposed constitution prohibits those who were married to foreigners from politics," Mr. Samak said after his friendly visit to Burma to increase commercial links between the two Buddhist-majority countries.

He said Burma had a "quasi-democracy" which Thailand could tolerate.

Mrs. Suu Kyi's father, Aung San, joined Japanese forces during World War II, hoping they would end British colonial rule and grant independence to Burma.

When Japan invaded and occupied Burma in 1942, and turned out to be harsh rulers, Aung San switched sides and helped British forces oust Japan in 1945.

His assassination in 1947, along with the killing of six members of his interim government, was blamed on political rivals and is marked each year as Martyrs' Day on July 19.

After Burma's independence in 1948, his daughter studied in Rangoon until she was 15, and then moved to New Delhi, where her widowed mother was Burma's ambassador to India and Nepal.

She studied politics at Delhi University, and obtained a BA from St. Hugh's College, Oxford University, before marrying in 1972.

After returning to Burma, she became involved in politics, and her National League for Democracy party won more than 80 percent of parliament's seats in a 1990 nationwide election.

That poll was trashed by the military, which has enjoyed power since a 1962 coup.

Today, much of the international attention on Burma is fixed on helping up to two million people who are struggling to survive after Cyclone Nargis devastated the densely populated Irrawaddy River delta.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon made no public mention of her during his visit, which ended on Friday (May 23), when he met Burma's leader, Senior General Than Shwe, to discuss cyclone aid.

The junta's often shrill propaganda machine has also been ignoring Mrs. Suu Kyi, preferring to use government-controlled media to praise the regime's handling of cyclone relief.

Mrs. Suu Kyi is usually denounced by the junta as an "axe-handle," and "puppet," being used by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and Burma's other enemies, as a way to chop up the resource-rich country so the Pentagon can establish military bases.

While she languishes in her musty villa, Burma holds hundreds of other political prisoners in extremely cruel conditions, according to London-based Amnesty International and other human rights groups.

Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist who has reported news from Asia since 1978. He is co-author of "Hello My Big Big Honey!", a non-fiction book of investigative journalism, and his web page is