Burma's Reality

IN the past months, Burma's military junta has tried to appear the model global citizen: It eased restrictions on foreign journalists, showcased its efforts in the drug war, and sacked leaders tainted by the brutal suppression of Burma's 1988 democracy movement.

But last week, Burma's most famous political prisoner, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, reminded us that Burma's cruel human rights policies remain unchanged. Under house arrest since 1989, Ms. Suu Kyi, who had been selling furniture to buy food, is reportedly on a hunger strike.

Meanwhile, a United Nations committee has voted unanimously to rebuke Burma's present rulers and called for Suu Kyi's unconditional release.

As leader of Burma's democracy movement in 1988, Suu Kyi had urged the military regime of Gen. Ne Win to return power to an elected government. Hundreds of pro-democracy protesters were subsequently gunned down.

Despite the crackdown, Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy won 80 percent of the vote in the May 1990 elections. A military group called the State Law and Order Restoration Council ignored the vote and seized power.

After 30 years of military rule, Burma is a mess. Once the world's largest rice and teak exporter, Burma began its decline in 1962 when the elected government was toppled. The coup leaders nationalized all businesses, from factories to pushcarts. Now the only commodity that Burma dominates is opium.

With freedom of speech squelched, a resurging student-led democracy movement is unlikely. But Western experts say a younger cadre of officers might be eager to rebel against their leaders and bring their country some needed foreign aid and investment. The United States and other developed countries have cut aid to Burma; Southeast Asian nations are reluctant to follow suit. Further isolation could spark a refugee crisis, Asian diplomats say.

The best strategy may be to follow the Chinese adage: Build a golden bridge behind your enemy (to speed his retreat). The US should promise immediate aid in exchange for Burma's release of all political prisoners and the promise of free, fair elections.

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