Burma's military poised to release democracy leader

Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma's top political prisoner, could be freed as early as today.

After months of quiet negotiations, the military junta that rules Burma (Myanmar) looks set to bow to international pressure and release democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from 19 months of house arrest.

Tin Oo, a senior member of her National League for Democracy (NLD), told reporters in Yangon, the capital, last week: "We don't know when exactly she will be released [but] we are expecting some definitely good news about Aung San Suu Kyi ... in days."

But at press time, negotiations continued to drag on and hopes for Ms. Suu Kyi's quick release started to dampen.

"We can guarantee that nothing is going to happen today. Please leave this area," a high-ranking military intelligence official told reporters yesterday.

Razali Ismail, the United Nation's special envoy to Burma, was in Yangon last week and met with both Suu Kyi and the generals who have ruled the country since 1962. When he left, he hinted that Suu Kyi would soon be released.

But while that would be the first positive step toward democracy in years, analysts say that it won't add up to much on its own.

"There is no indication that Burma is going to transform into a democracy in two or three years,'' says Aung Zaw, a Burmese exile who edits the Irrawwady magazine in Thailand.

In 1990, the NLD rolled to a landslide victory in Burma's first free elections since the military junta took power in 1962, despite the fact that Suu Kyi was living under house arrest.

After the 1990 election the generals refused to cede power. She was released in 1995, though largely confined to the capital city. In September 2000, when she defied her travel ban and tried to leave Yangon, she was arrested again and has since been confined to her home, without the use of a telephone.

Since 1990, the country of 50 million has been largely cut off from international assistance, and its military has been accused of massive human-rights abuses. There are some 1,000 political prisoners in the country.

"The play for the generals is to try to use her release to get some legitimacy and much-needed international assistance,'' says Mr. Aung, "because the economic situation has been getting worse."

The World Bank estimated that in 1997 about 12.5 million Burmese were living below the minimum subsistence level. More recent data is not available, but high inflation and low growth have probably increased that number in recent years.

The trend in infant and maternal mortality and child malnutrition in the past 15 years "is one of stagnation or even deterioration,'' the International Crisis Group, an independent think tank, wrote in an April report. The group says that only 30 percent of Burmese children receive a primary education.

The timing of Suu Kyi's release will depend on ongoing negotiations with the generals, who want her to agree to not leave the city and other conditions. The United States and other nations have urged that she be released unconditionally.

Suu Kyi's political aides are weighing the risks and rewards of accepting a conditional release. She will be more free to meet supporters and the international press if free, but will also be handing the junta a public relations victory if she accepts their conditions.

"She needs to be very careful,'' says a Burmese politician living in exile in Thailand. "She has the power to give the people instant courage, expectations will be very high. But what happens if she doesn't deliver?"

But US officials and the UN say the military regime must be pushed toward an open society.

Magazine editor Aung Zaw says he doesn't expect a quick change in the regime: "This is a positive step. But they are going to use her to woo the international community. The international community shouldn't be fooled. These leaders who have been enjoying the privileged life don't want to give it up."

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