Burma: Dictators at Work

DICTATORS don't change habits easily.

When Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest last July, she immediately struck a conciliatory note by calling for dialogue with the country's military regime. The clearest response from the government, the grimly named State Law and Order Council (SLORC), came this week. It refused to let her resume the post of general secretary of the National League for Democracy, a party she helped found.

SLORC's strategy, it seems, is to keep Ms. Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Laureate, sidelined. That strategy is further stark evidence of how the junta tramples on the wishes of its own citizens. Suu Kyi is the only political figure who commands widespread public loyalty, even reverence.

When Gen. Maung Aye, vice commander of the Burmese Army, told world leaders at the United Nations' 50th anniversary gathering that security for his country means the ''right to choose one's own political, economic, and social systems,'' he exposed how myopic dictatorial governments can become. The Burmese people made that choice in a free election back in 1990 and the general and his comrades promptly nullified it.

Now they claim to be overseeing an opening of Burma, which in their lexicon has a strictly economic definition. They'll welcome foreign investors but they slam the door on anything hinting at competitive domestic politics.

Burma could move ahead economically, since many outsiders are anxious to develop the country's abundant natural resources. But the generals have failed for years to prove they know how to create economic growth for their people. Real progress will take root only when Suu Kyi and other democrats are given a chance to participate in shaping Burma's future.

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