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Burma's slow freedom push

By Special to The Christian Science Monitor / May 13, 2002


Burma's military rulers released Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi last week in the hopes that biting international economic sanctions would be eased.

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But can the diminutive Ms. Suu Kyi now revive Burma's (called Myanmar by the ruling junta) withered pro-democracy movement?

The answer lies somewhere between the ruling military's desire to keep power and the continuing cost of being an international pariah. Experts question if Suu Kyi's release is the first step toward concrete and long-term changes or if it's window dressing to receive aid from the international community.

The democracy movement's greatest asset will be the increased visibility of Suu Kyi herself. After 19 months of house arrest, in which her phone lines were cut and she was rarely allowed visitors, she is now rebuilding the hobbled movement and refocusing international attention on the regime. Suu Kyi is now meeting with diplomats and party members at her home and working to revitalize external party supporters.

For her part, Suu Kyi and her aides have taken a less defiant tone after her release unlike the period following her arrest in October 2000. During this time, she provoked a standoff with the regime over its ban on her traveling to meet supporters.

"We believe that the first priority is to have good relations with the SPDC, so that we can have a political answer to Burma's problems," says Dr. San Aung, a minister in Suu Kyi's exiled shadow government in Thailand.

The junta, which calls itself the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), says it seized power because democracy is too dangerous given the differences among Burma's ethnic groups.

Suu Kyi, the daughter of assassinated independence hero Aung San, says she is committed to an ongoing dialogue with the junta. Though technically free to move about the country, aides say she won't do anything to risk another detention now.

"By releasing her, the military has put the responsibility squarely on her shoulders to keep talks on track," says Aung Naing Oo, a former student-democracy activist who lives in exile in Thailand. "I don't think she will do anything that is detrimental to that process."

Suu Kyi did say this weekend in an interview with Oslo-based Democratic Voice of Burma that, "my movement is a lot freer. I can go anywhere, and no one is following me. They allow me to meet whoever I want."

Talks between Suu Kyi and the junta began at the prompting of the United Nations shortly after her latest detention began, but have focused only on preliminaries such as the release of political prisoners. About 160 democracy activists have been freed since 2000.

Suu Kyi is expecting to breach the issue of political power. "Both sides agree that the phase of confidence building is over," Suu Kyi said shortly after her release. "We look forward to moving across to a more significant phase."

Suu Kyi says that she hopes the deter- iorating economy will help pry the first real democratic opening since 1990, when the military annulled free elections that Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) won in a landslide. Though she is publicly opposed to more aid, analysts say she is likely to approve more money for the regime if it makes democratic concessions.

While the NLD opposes development aid, it agrees with humanitarian aid if it is funnelled directly to the the Burmese people.

"To be so [directly delivered], there should be accountability and transparency [in the handling of the assistance]. Furthermore, the minimum requirements for the channeling of the assistance must be independently monitored," she said, noting that her party would like to monitor the humanitarian assistance.

Japan announced this past Friday that it was giving $5 million to Burma to renovate power plants, something analysts said was a reward for the release of Suu Kyi.