Burma's Star Dissident Emerges

Aung San Suu Kyi's release likely to bring much-needed Western aid, trade

SO much has changed about Burma over the six years that star dissident Aung San Suu Kyi was put under house arrest that her release this week may reveal her reduced ability to overthrow the military junta.

Burma's changes start with Ms. Suu Kyi herself. The daughter of the nation's independence hero who rallied street protests against former dictator Ne Win in 1988-89, Suu Kyi now talks of peace. Speaking after her release Monday, she called for dialogue and reconciliation.

Years of detention in her Rangoon home may have tempered her former tendency to openly criticize the military's legitimacy. She now speaks in gentler tones while holding steadfast to her commitment to democracy.

Some Rangoon analysts say Suu Kyi's support in Burma remains limited to the urban elite. The rural masses have been largely untouched by the pro-democracy movement unleashed in the late 1980s.

Brought up and educated abroad, and married to a British academic, Suu Kyi may risk being out of touch with the masses. She became a rallying point mainly because of her father, Aung San.

She has often been compared to the other democracy champion in Asia, the Philippines' Corazon Aquino, widow of an assassinated dissident.

Both women are described as equally stubborn. But both have been political symbols, taking a moral high ground. And both won elections that dictators ignored.

Rangoon-based diplomats note that Suu Kyi on her release has been careful not to upset the ruling State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) and they feel neither should Western democracy activists cry too loudly about the slow march of democracy lest it backfire. ''It is a fragile move to a freer Burma. Involvement of third parties could upset this movement,'' one diplomat in Rangoon warns.

Analysts think the release of Suu Kyi means that SLORC is secure about its ability to control the political environment.

The economy has performed well since it junked socialism and embarked on a free-market econics in the late 1980s. Burma's gross domestic product grew six percent in the last two years.

China and Thailand have poured consumer goods into Burma in a thriving border trade. A new entrepreneurial class has emerged. Life in Rangoon, the capital, has changed, with more shops, restaurants, and businesses opened and jobs created.

The government has forged peace pacts with its many ethnic insurgent groups except the Karens on the Thai-Burma border.

What is still unclear is the role Suu Kyi will be allowed to play in Burma's political life.

She says she will assess and consult opposition leaders. The SLORC wants her to play a positive role, but not necessarily a pivotal one. One diplomat says given Suu Kyi's stature, she ''will be a pole of attraction even if she will not be involved in politics.''

Her release notification from SLORC chairman Gen. Than Shwe stated: ''We would like you to help toward achieving peace and stability in the country.''

The junta is writing a new constitution for Burma. The new charter assures the military of continued power. A certain percentage of seats in the legislation will be reserved for the armed forces and the next president or leader has to be a military man, which rules Suu Kyi out as a contender.

Most Western governments see the Nobel laureate's release as a benchmark toward breaking Rangoon's international isolation and their dealings with the junta.

Burma, or Myanmar as the military rulers want their country to be known, became an international pariah in 1989 when it crushed a democracy movement that Suu Kyi headed and annulled the elections her political party had won.

Her release may now lead to a resumption of needed aid, trade, and investments by the West - cut off when Suu Kyi was put under house arrest without trial.

The West can now literally cash in on business opportunities that Burma has offered to the Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN) in exchange for not taking a confrontational attitude over democracy and human rights issues.

But the word all around is caution, in treading gently on what her freedom could mean for herself, Burma, and for the Western powers interested in seeing democracy restored.

World leaders welcomed her release, saying it was a good start, but emphasized it was not enough.

They want to see an end to the arrests of political dissidents, forced labor, and an installation of a mechanism for transition to popular democracy.

But the junta, by keeping Suu Kyi for the maximum of six years allowed under the law, showed it will not be bludgeoned by the West.

Rather Burma's rulers prefer the soft whispers of its ASEAN neighbors, which have been quietly talking to them to ease up on Suu Kyi and their repression on one hand while pumping in investments on the other to support the authoritarian regime.

ASEAN is enticing Burma to join the group. Burma is interested, but only at its own pace.

Thailand, Singapore, and Malaysia, the most prosperous of the ASEAN members, have been ivesting heavily in Burma.

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