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The Proof of The Pudding

The release of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi after some 20 months of house arrest was welcomed around the world. But don't hold your breath for substantial political change any time soon.

By Bertil Lintner/CHIANG MAI

CELEBRATIONS OVER THE May 6 release of Burma's opposition and pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, are premature. For starters, the haphazard manner of her release suggests that no firm deal has been struck with the country's military government on the freedom of movement and political activities of both Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD). That could spell trouble in the future. Furthermore, the regime's track record does not inspire confidence about its commitment to reconciliation and democracy.

After inviting the world's press to Rangoon for the event, the ruling junta realized that everyone wanted to know about the terms of Suu Kyi's release--they hadn't even talked to her about the key issue. "She was undoubtedly able to get much better conditions than would have been otherwise possible," says a well-connected Western diplomat in Rangoon. "We don't know the details yet, but her release is 'unconditional' and she will be allowed to move around freely."

But how that will apply in practice is far from clear. And Suu Kyi, while welcoming her release as a "new dawn for the country," told a press conference that it should not be seen as a major breakthrough for democracy. "For all people in Burma, to enjoy basic freedom, that would be a major breakthrough," she said. And that may not happen any time soon.

Despite the release of more than 200 jailed NLD members over the past year, Amnesty International estimates that at least another 1,500 political prisoners are languishing in jails and labour camps. And as long as that situation remains unchanged and the overall political stalemate in Burma continues, Western powers are unlikely to ease their pressure on the Rangoon regime.

Furthermore, many Rangoon residents fear that the military has no intention of giving up or sharing power. And Western diplomats suspect Suu Kyi's release has more to do with a desire to see foreign aid reinstated than a commitment to political change.

They note the regime's past record of failing to honour pledges for change. For example, intelligence chief Lt-Gen. Khin Nyunt in January last year urged the international community to resume aid "because of positive developments" in Burma. The appeal came a few days after United Nations special envoy Razali Ismail, who has played a key intermediary role (see accompanying story on page 12), announced that Suu Kyi and the ruling officers had opened a dialogue. But the West had since become increasingly frustrated with the apparent lack of progress in the talks.

Thus Suu Kyi's release has been welcomed by all parties and, despite scepticism about the junta's motives, there are signs for hope. Both sides have compromised and appear to have shifted from their hardline positions.

The NLD leader, whose party was robbed of its landslide win in the 1990 general election and almost destroyed by the military in the following years, told reporters that the talks had advanced beyond the confidence-building stage and would now start to tackle thorny issues such as the constitution and the economy. But she admitted there were no specific arrangement for future talks.

While Suu Kyi indicated she would exercise restraint in her nationwide movements--her bid to travel outside Rangoon in September 2000 had prompted the regime's last clampdown on her and the NLD--she rebutted suggestions that she was going soft on the government. The daughter of Burma's founding father, Aung San, said her goals remained the same and she would continue calling for trade, aid and tourism boycotts until there was real change.

Meanwhile, the Western world will keep the pressure on the regime until it sees signs of real movement. On April 11, the European parliament called for tougher European Union sanctions, including an investment ban, if dialogue between the military and democracy activists fails to make headway in the next six months.

In the United States, President George W. Bush welcomed Suu Kyi's release but stressed that the U.S. wanted to see concrete steps towards political reform and reconciliation, including prisoner releases, before any review of U.S. sanctions.

Western powers are convinced that it is their tough policy that forced the junta to make concessions, while Burma's Asian neighbours have always argued that quiet diplomacy is more effective. But, as the Western diplomat in Rangoon puts it, "The regime does not like any kind of external interference."

And there's the rub. Analysts fear that the government is only making cosmetic changes under duress and that, as in its peace talks over the years with various ethnic-minority rebels groups, it will never bargain or compromise on substantive political issues. And if there is no give within a reasonable time, Suu Kyi will withdraw her pipe of peace.

This article first appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, May 16, 2002

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