ALMOST two months after her release from six years under house arrest, Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi faces a task of incalculable delicacy: how to prod the country's military rulers toward democracy without provoking an angry backlash.
''Everybody in Burma is trying all sorts of ways of pushing the authorities gently - and some perhaps think that it's necessary to do it not so gently - towards dialogue,'' she said in an interview Wednesday. Her own view is somewhere in between: ''I think you can be gentle but firm.''
Indeed, Ms. Suu Kyi is now sounding firmer than she did after her release July 10. She seems more willing to hint at what might happen here if the junta continues to ignore her. ''At the moment we do not really need the kind of demonstrations we had in 1988,'' she says, referring to the massive pro-democracy movement that was crushed by a military-led regime. A military junta called the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) took power in September of that year.
But, she says, ''I cannot speak for the future.'' Asked if more protests might occur, she replies: ''I would hope that we could get to where we want to without the need for such an uprising.''
''But then I'm not an astrologer,'' Suu Kyi continues. ''I do not know whether there will be one [uprising] or not. It's very difficult to predict how the people will react ... if one is not in a position to communicate freely and to find out what they are thinking.''
Some Burmese worry that she is already being too resolute. ''She is politicking. She is trying to rally the people. And this SLORC doesn't like,'' says a Rangoon lawyer who was imprisoned for opposing the regime. He would like Suu Kyi to be more conciliatory toward the junta in an effort to win their cooperation.
''SLORC is a very conservative organization. They do not want to change anything,'' he adds. If the generals are pushed too hard, he warns, ''they will retreat back into their shell and start shooting. It's all they know how to do.'' The military violently crushed the 1988 democracy movement, killing thousands in the streets and imprisoning thousands more.
For the time being, Suu Kyi and her advisers seem content to revive and reorganize their party, the National League for Democracy. Several of her advisers say the junta recognizes it must begin negotiations aimed at a restoration of civilian rule.
SLORC has not indicated that it will go along. In freeing Suu Kyi, the regime may simply have been trying to improve its tattered international image in order to boost foreign investment.
The regime has not formally explained its motives for Suu Kyi's release and is unwilling to entertain questions on the subject from the international media. One official, insisting on anonymity, reiterated a view that other SLORC members have aired: ''I think she will become more and more irrelevant.''
Contradicting speculations here that she may be engaged in secret discussions with the regime, Suu Kyi says she has met no generals since meeting the SLORC's two key leaders before her release.
As one Asian diplomat here puts it: ''SLORC would like to keep her away from politics and control her.'' There is some evidence to support this analysis. The regime has not yet responded to Suu Kyi's request for permission to operate a fax machine and copier. The British Broadcasting Corporation's Burmese-language broadcasts, one of the few sources of independent news available here, were jammed shortly after it aired an interview with the Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
Even so, Suu Kyi's newfound freedom has brought a lightness of spirit to many Burmese. ''Material conditions may not seem encouraging,'' says one of her advisers, also imprisoned for a few years. ''But since her release the political climate has to a certain extent been eased.''
A Rangoon University student explains his sense of encouragement more simply: ''She is the only one who can turn the country around.''
Diplomats in Rangoon note that opposition figures now have an easier time meeting foreigners and each other. Emboldened by Suu Kyi's willingness to meet just about anyone who asks to see her, many of Rangoon's opposition political figures have become more defiant. ''We do what we like,'' says one.
But any delight that the Burmese might feel is mitigated by hard realities. Terms such as ''repressive military dictatorship'' come alive in Burma. No one will discuss politics or Suu Kyi without first scanning those within earshot in an attempt to spot an informant.
The state controls the media, which is filled with solicitous reports about the generals' latest accomplishments. Although the government has been releasing jailed dissidents in recent months, the NLD estimates that there are 200 political prisoners in Burma.
Virtually none of the two-dozen political leaders, students, monks, businesspeople, diplomats, and officials interviewed during a 10-day visit to the country were willing to be quoted by name.
The notable exception, of course, is Suu Kyi herself. But even she sounds more convinced of the logic that the generals must talk to her than optimistic about their willingness to do so. ''I do sincerely believe, and I think most of the people of Burma share this belief, that in the end our problems will have to be settled through dialogue. And let's hope that this comes sooner rather than later,'' she says.
The regime has established a forum that is supposed to pave the way for democracy, a convention of delegates drawing up principles to be used in drafting a new constitution. Suu Kyi called the National Convention a ''farce,'' angering the government.
The NLD has thus far participated in the forum, which is mostly stocked with delegates hand-picked by the military. It is an open question whether the NLD will continue to join in the military's idea of dialogue. On Wednesday Suu Kyi refused to answer questions on the subject.
Perhaps the most significant unknown quantity in the current standoff is the role of the military ruler who stepped down in 1988, Ne Win. His 16 years of socialist-inspired rule brought tyranny and economic malaise to a once prosperous country, and Suu Kyi was the first Burmese to criticize his excesses to the people. The secretive retired general is still said by many to be the power behind the current regime.
There is some speculation that Mr. Ne Win may bring Suu Kyi into the political process in order to go down in history as a bestower of democracy rather than a dictator. Suu Kyi herself doesn't have much to say about such hypotheses, except to deny having held any meetings with him.
The tension over Burma's future that is now percolating is proving wearisome to businesspeople who are trying to take advantage of the government's policy of opening the economy. Says one Rangoon banker:
''Everybody says they love the country, yet they can't sit down together.''