Path to civilian rule eludes Burma

A UN envoy Tuesday was the first to visit Aung San Suu Kyi after her detention May 30.

The sun had already sunk behind the rice paddies and palm trees. The men, armed with sharpened sticks and clubs, had chosen their ambush point well: a one-lane bridge over a dusty creek. When a convoy of 90 cars and motorbikes slowed at the crossing, the trap was sprung.

Caught in that trap were opposition leader and Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and about 200 of her supporters. The attackers were led by a civilian front for Burma's military regime. When they finished, at least 70 people, mostly youth activists, lay dead, most of them bludgeoned, according to Burmese who have collated eyewitness accounts. Opposition activists, diplomats and analysts say the Burmese junta was behind the May 30 attack and the wider crackdown on the prodemocracy movement.

Suu Kyi, who led the National League for Democracy (NLD) to victory in 1990 only to see the vote annulled, was arrested that night after her car was attacked. Tuesday, Razali Ismail, a UN envoy who has been trying to broker political talks in Burma, met with the Nobel laureate and told reporters that she was in good health, contrary to reports she was injured in the attack. Scores of other NLD officials are also in custody or under house arrest.

US officials have responded to the crackdown by calling for more economic sanctions, while joining international calls for the release of Suu Kyi and other political detainees. But the attack has dealt a body blow to this nation's hopes of emerging from years of isolation and strife under military rule. The message behind the recent violence seems clear: there is no road map for a return to civilian rule in Burma.

"To the generals, they see that dialogue with the opposition means that they will ultimately lose out, and basically they just don't want to know," says Aung Naing Oo, a Burmese political analyst based in Thailand.

The latest crackdown comes more than a year after Suu Kyi was released from 19 months of house arrest, her most recent detention. At that time, the military regime spoke of "national reconciliation" and held out the prospect of political negotiations with the NLD, only to stonewall attempts to initiate serious talks.

Observers say senior leader Gen. Than Shwe, a hard liner who loathes even the mention of Suu Kyi's name, has now dropped any pretense of peaceful coexistence with pro-democracy forces. His control over the civilian militia that carried out the May 30 ambush puts him squarely in the driving seat of that bloody operation, they say, and underscores his willingness to use force to stay in power.

Diplomats say the regime also grew frustrated with the refusal of US and European countries to lift diplomatic and economic sanctions, despite releasing Suu Kyi in 2002. "They didn't get the rewards, so they probably started saying, 'hey, why do we bother playing ball with the West?' " says a European diplomat in Bangkok.

But sparks also flew closer to home. In the past year, Suu Kyi had doggedly rebuilt a political party that had withered through years of repression. Branch offices were reopened and young activists recruited to the cause. Suu Kyi toured the country, drawing rapturous crowds, even in Burma's more remote regions with large ethnic populations, where her party's Burmese base could be a handicap.

As Suu Kyi's popularity increased, so did harassment from the regime. Thugs were sent to disrupt her rallies by menacing onlookers and blasting loud music to drown out her speeches. But the crowds kept coming. The last NLD rally held in Monywa, a day before the fateful night drive, drew tens of thousands of supporters for a 20-minute address by Suu Kyi and caused three-hour tailbacks on the road from Mandalay.

The next day, the regime struck back. According to state media, what happened on the road from Monywa was a spontaneous clash between pro- and antigovernment forces, an example of the chaos wrought by democracy activists, or "internal destructive elements."

But local residents have a different story to tell. They say it was a preplanned attack staged by government forces that press-ganged villagers to fight, without telling them for what cause, and brought convicts to nearby houses where they were plied with alcohol before the attack. Opposition sources that spoke to eyewitnesses say that trucks were driven onto the road to cut off the rear of the convoy and that soldiers shot and killed students and monks from Monywa who tried to reach the scene.

US officials reached a similar conclusion last week when they visited the scene. A team from the US Embassy in Rangoon retrieved bloody clothing, weapons, and broken glass from what the State Department has since called a "premeditated ambush" by "government-affiliated thugs."

Secretary of State Colin Powell is likely to press Burma for answers at a regional meeting of foreign ministers in Cambodia next week. Diplomats say the strike against Suu Kyi is a rude awakening for Western countries that thought the junta had turned over a new leaf when it released her in 2002. "We've tried the carrot and now this: a reality check. The US and Europe are really fed up," says a Western diplomat.

But any hopes of concerted international pressure on the regime will be dented by the reluctance of many Asian countries to reprimand the junta. Diplomats say Burma is confident that China and Japan, as well as trading partners in Southeast Asia, won't join any campaign to squeeze the regime.

Even a proposed ban on US imports of Burmese textiles, worth about $350 million a year, can only exert so much effort, say analysts.

"The military doesn't care unless there is real pressure, and I don't think that pressure is forthcoming from the European Union, let alone ASEAN," says Ms. Naing Oo, referring to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

In Burma, where few are brave enough to speak out and risk the regime's wrath, public reaction has so far been understandably muted. In private, though, Burmese express frustration with the military's decaying grip on a nation and the harsh treatment meted out to the woman known simply as "The Lady."

"She's here in our hearts, but this is a setback for us. It may be another five or 10 years before my country can get better," says a schoolteacher.

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