Suu Kyi's Release: Act I in Burma's Drama

The key question now is whether the junta is willing to collaborate with democratic forces in the country

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RELEASED after six years of house arrest, Burma's most famous dissident and democrat, Aung San Suu Kyi, recently threw a tea party in the Burmese capital, Rangoon, for the hordes of reporters in town. She half-jokingly explained that it was a farewell tea, for she fully expected them to leave now that her release was no longer news.

But the real story - Burma's difficult transition to civilian rule - has just begun. On July 10 the Burmese military junta, known as SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council), took a calculated risk. They freed the one person who can destroy them. Ironically, Ms. Suu Kyi is also the only one who can help keep the military relevant within a democratic Burma (also called Myanmar).

Burma's heroine symbolized the Burmese people's yearning for freedom even before she was arrested for voicing the collective aspirations of her silenced compatriots. Her father, Aung San, was the Burmese equivalent of John F. Kennedy and George Washington rolled into one. Gen. Aung San, like Washington, was revered as a founding father of modern Burma after he delivered the country from colonial rule. But he never got to lead the newly independent country. Like JFK, the general was assassinated in the prime of his life.

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The release of Suu Kyi has given Burma a second chance. Whether ''the Lady,'' as she is often called, with her combination of brains, grit, pedigree, and charm, can help break the military stranglehold on Burma depends on factors not necessarily within her control. Her release offers hope that the SLORC is not monolithic, and its tight ranks may contain Burmese ''Pinochets'' who can work with the democracy forces to bring back civilian rule.

Beneath the euphoria generated by Suu Kyi's release, though, lies a tense nation. Never in modern history has the Burmese Army openly split. But neither have the Burmese people ever been so exhausted as they are now, after 23 years of repression and isolation under the generals.

A multitude of problems plague Burma: a severe lack of basic infrastructure, a devastated educational system, a continuing brain drain, a huge income gap between an elite military establishment and the rest of the country, unchecked heroin production and an increasing addict population, and the threat of an AIDS crisis. And these are only some of the ailments that need prompt attention.

These are unpredictable and dangerous times for Burma. Too many expect too much too soon. Suu Kyi's remark, ''I have been released. That is all. Nothing else has changed,'' reminds us that she has been freed into a closed society where censorship and fear prevail. Many Burmese simply feel the whole thing is a trick by the SLORC to lure the democracy network to the surface so it can once again be crushed. Others, like Suu Kyi, are cautiously optimistic - perhaps because the alternative is too terrible to contemplate.

The Burmese junta is a formidable opponent. It commands one of the most seasoned armies in Asia (it has seen nonstop action for almost half a century, directed against the ethnic minorities within the country), and its leaders genuinely believe only they can keep the Burmese nation-state from disintegration or from domination by ''neocolonial'' interests.

The SLORC viewpoint may appear extreme to outside observers, but Suu Kyi understands and appreciates the historical roots of the SLORC's seeming arrogance and paranoia.

Therefore, the junta, when it says it wants the best for the country, must be given the benefit of the doubt - if only for her sake.

International support is crucial to finding a durable peace in Burma. But a demand for instant democracy could derail the process before it has begun. The Burmese Army will not disappear overnight. The military regime must be encouraged, however, to start and maintain a genuine dialogue with the forces for democracy.

These include, in addition to Suu Kyi, her colleagues in the National League for Democracy party (NLD) and others who won seats in the 1990 election that was nullified by the SLORC. Any negotiations on the future of Burma must also include the ethnic groups that have for years fought the central authorities.

Suu Kyi has her work cut out for her, but she is more than up to the task. The chances for success are as good as they'll ever be, since everyone is fed up with the status quo. Even her detractors would like to see her try to bring about change.

Fortunately, she commands the respect not only of her own Burman majority population, but also of the diverse ethnic groups counting on her to broker a just peace for all.

A leader of the ethnic Kachin group recently told me, ''Aung San Suu Kyi is right. We must go slowly and not rush things, for we want a true and lasting national reconciliation.''

Governments and citizens of freedom-loving nations who are rooting for Suu Kyi and the Burmese people to succeed must show their support by keeping their eyes on Burma's unfolding saga. Evolving political processes do not usually make news, but now more than ever the world must keep watching.

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