Burma's slow freedom push

Burma's military rulers released Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi last week in the hopes that biting international economic sanctions would be eased.

But can the diminutive Ms. Suu Kyi now revive Burma's (called Myanmar by the ruling junta) withered pro-democracy movement?

The answer lies somewhere between the ruling military's desire to keep power and the continuing cost of being an international pariah. Experts question if Suu Kyi's release is the first step toward concrete and long-term changes or if it's window dressing to receive aid from the international community.

The democracy movement's greatest asset will be the increased visibility of Suu Kyi herself. After 19 months of house arrest, in which her phone lines were cut and she was rarely allowed visitors, she is now rebuilding the hobbled movement and refocusing international attention on the regime. Suu Kyi is now meeting with diplomats and party members at her home and working to revitalize external party supporters.

For her part, Suu Kyi and her aides have taken a less defiant tone after her release unlike the period following her arrest in October 2000. During this time, she provoked a standoff with the regime over its ban on her traveling to meet supporters.

"We believe that the first priority is to have good relations with the SPDC, so that we can have a political answer to Burma's problems," says Dr. San Aung, a minister in Suu Kyi's exiled shadow government in Thailand.

The junta, which calls itself the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), says it seized power because democracy is too dangerous given the differences among Burma's ethnic groups.

Suu Kyi, the daughter of assassinated independence hero Aung San, says she is committed to an ongoing dialogue with the junta. Though technically free to move about the country, aides say she won't do anything to risk another detention now.

"By releasing her, the military has put the responsibility squarely on her shoulders to keep talks on track," says Aung Naing Oo, a former student-democracy activist who lives in exile in Thailand. "I don't think she will do anything that is detrimental to that process."

Suu Kyi did say this weekend in an interview with Oslo-based Democratic Voice of Burma that, "my movement is a lot freer. I can go anywhere, and no one is following me. They allow me to meet whoever I want."

Talks between Suu Kyi and the junta began at the prompting of the United Nations shortly after her latest detention began, but have focused only on preliminaries such as the release of political prisoners. About 160 democracy activists have been freed since 2000.

Suu Kyi is expecting to breach the issue of political power. "Both sides agree that the phase of confidence building is over," Suu Kyi said shortly after her release. "We look forward to moving across to a more significant phase."

Suu Kyi says that she hopes the deter- iorating economy will help pry the first real democratic opening since 1990, when the military annulled free elections that Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) won in a landslide. Though she is publicly opposed to more aid, analysts say she is likely to approve more money for the regime if it makes democratic concessions.

While the NLD opposes development aid, it agrees with humanitarian aid if it is funnelled directly to the the Burmese people.

"To be so [directly delivered], there should be accountability and transparency [in the handling of the assistance]. Furthermore, the minimum requirements for the channeling of the assistance must be independently monitored," she said, noting that her party would like to monitor the humanitarian assistance.

Japan announced this past Friday that it was giving $5 million to Burma to renovate power plants, something analysts said was a reward for the release of Suu Kyi.

The military's adoption of the "Burmese Way to Socialism," a mix of Marxism and mysticism that crippled the economy has been followed in recent years by both massive corruption and international sanctions, which have fueled the economy's downward spiral.

The Burmese kyat has lost more than half its value in the last year alone; the UN says that fewer than half of Burmese get enough to eat; the World Health Organization ranks Burmese medical care 190 out of 191 countries.

"They released her because the economy is so bad; they're worrying about a mass mobilization, an uprising," says Zaw Min, a spokesman for the Democratic Party for a New Society, a minor party that supports the NLD.

Zaw Min says that the military is counting on international help to take the edge off the humanitarian crisis. But he and most other democracy activists are concerned that more aid could prop up the regime. "The international community should be very careful," Zaw Min says.

"The NLD's position is that the humanitarian crisis is not natural, it is man made," says Dr. San Aung. "Humanitarian assistance should not damage the process of democratization by helping the SPDC shift money from health and education to the military."

San Aung has no illusions about the odds against the movement. The military's media monopoly hasn't mentioned Suu Kyi's release, or the talks between the democracy leader and the junta. "So most people in Burma know less than the rest of the world," he says.

Suu Kyi can't risk a phone call to opposition leaders in exile since the regime says such contact is illegal. "If she and I spoke on the phone, they could throw her in a labor camp for 30 years," says San Aung. More than 1,000 democracy activists remain in jail, 19 of them legislators elected in 1990.

"Frankly speaking, we can't find any proof yet that the military is willing to make democratic concessions," San Aung says. "The first good steps it could take would be to release all of the political prisoners. Then we need a free media."

The US, which withdrew its ambassador and imposed sanctions after the military annulled the 1990 elections, has vowed to keep the pressure on the regime. The US has also helped cut off aid flows to Burma from the World Bank and the International Monetary Funds.

The country has eight ethnic groups and more than a dozen private armies. The majority Burman ethnicity, which Suu Kyi and most of the military leaders belong to, accounts for about 65 percent of Burma's 50 million people.

Large portions of Burma's border are under the de facto control of insurgents and ethnic warlords. These lawless regions are major producers of heroin and amphetamines, and the international community worries about their potential to export more problems if the Burmese state fails completely.

The United Wa State Army, with 20,000 men, is a tribal force along Burma's Western border and is heavily financed by narco-trafficking. Jane's Defense Weekly says it has an arsenal that includes surface-to-air missiles.

In its statement on Suu Kyi's release, the SPDC alluded to its position: "We shall recommit ourselves to allowing all our citizens to participate freely in the life of our political process while giving priority to national unity, peace, and stability."

The NLD agrees that healing the country's differences among the country's ethnic minorities are crucial, but says the junta's claims that national disintegration will follow democracy is fiction. Most of the major ethnic groups want autonomy, not independence, and Suu Kyi says that they should eventually be given a seat in negotiations with the government.

"This is going to be a very long process, and there are no guarantees of success, says Zaw Min, the supporter of the NLD. "Will Burma be democratic in two years? I don't think so. In five years? Maybe."

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