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Burma Military Plans Democracy Eventually, But Not Quickly - 2002-08-19

Burma's military leadership says it intends to install democracy in the country eventually, but will not move too quickly. The statement came on the last day of a two-day visit to Rangoon by Malaysia's Prime Minister Mohamad Mahathir.

The number-three leader of the ruling junta in Burma, Lieutenant General Khin Nyunt made the pledge in a speech Monday at a business conference attended by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir.

General Khin Nyunt says the Burmese government is laying the foundations for the emergence of a democratic state. But he cautioned that such a transition cannot be done in a haphazard manner because the world is full of examples where a hasty transition has led to unrest and instability.

Prime Minister Mahathir indicated support for the policy, telling reporters that the process of change must be gradual. Mr. Mahathir arrived in Rangoon Sunday and met with the leader of the junta, Senior General Than Shwe.

He did not meet, however, with Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the opposition National League for Democracy. The NLD has been campaigning for reform since the military prevented it from assuming power after the 1990 elections.

Aung San Suu Kyi and the military have been engaged in two years of confidence building talks with the help of a U.N. special envoy, Malaysian diplomat Razali Ismail. Mr. Razali wrapped up a visit to Burma earlier this month, saying he believed the talks would move from their current stalemate into more substantive political issues very soon.

A political analyst with the Forum Asia civic group, Sunai Phasuk, said Mr. Mahathir's visit comes at a critical time. "Malaysia has played a very important role in advising strategy to the SPDC [junta] generals. And the strategy they came up with back then is that they need to start a political dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi and to release her from house arrest, because Aung San Suu Kyi has been used as a symbol of political suppression in Burma."

Malaysia has supported a policy of engaging Burma rather than the West's approach of using sanctions to press for political reform. Malaysia is also one of Burma's biggest trading partners. During Mr. Mahathir's visit, members of his delegation signed several trade agreements.