Burma: Cautious Hope

THE freeing of Burmese democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi could signal a turn from military dictatorship in that country. Or it could be a calculated risk by generals who have no intention of loosening their grip on power.

The behavior of Burma's rulers prior to and during the six years of Ms. Suu Kyi's house imprisonment would favor the latter. They crushed popular protests during the late 1980s, nullified the electoral victory of Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy in 1990, and stifled any breath of dissent thereafter.

But the circumstances of the opposition leader's release leave room for "cautious optimism" - which was Suu Kyi's counsel to followers elated by this unexpected turn of events. Colleagues from the League for Democracy were able to visit her shortly after house arrest was lifted, a hopeful sign in itself. And she expressed hopes for an all-parties dialogue within Burma (also called Myanmar).

People who know Suu Kyi are confident she held to a determination to reject any government conditions on her release. The military's State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) had earlier demanded that she withdraw from politics and leave the country.

Where does Burma's democracy movement go from here? Will its most revered figure, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, be able to continue contacts with colleagues and build democratic structures within the country? In a meeting with reporters, Suu Kyi indicated a willingness to work with the current government. She said the military leaders, too, wanted to return power to the people - though she is doubtless aware their interpretation of that phrase could be distant from hers. And she even drew a parallel to South Africa.

In South Africa, however, the former repressors recognized the bankruptcy of their system and initiated moves toward reconciliation and democracy. It's far from clear, at this juncture, that Burma's leaders have any such recognition.

But what is clear is Suu Kyi's freedom and the possibility her voice will again be heard.

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