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Burmese Government Tries to Soften Image

The year 2002 saw some efforts by Burma's military government to soften its harsh image abroad. The authorities released hundreds of political prisoners and freed pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from 19 months of house arrest.

As the year drew to a close, United Nations special envoy Razali Ismail was packing his bags to return to Burma for another round of mediating between the government and the opposition National League for Democracy, or NLD. Mr. Razali forged a dialogue two years ago after a decade-long stand-off between the ruling generals and the suppressed NLD. The talks were the first real communication since 1990, when the NLD won elections but was barred from taking power by the military junta and then persecuted.

The Malaysian diplomat's two-year effort has brought some success. The Burmese government during 2002 stepped up the pace of prisoner releases. And in May, it released NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi from her latest stint under house arrest and allowed her to travel outside Rangoon to hold rallies and re-open party offices.

Within just a few months of resuming limited political activity, Aung San Suu Kyi again upped the stakes by challenging the ruling generals to release all remaining political prisoners. "We would like to call on everybody who cares for the future of Burma to support the request, the demand for the release of all political prisoners speedily and unconditionally," she said.

The Nobel Prize-winning NLD leader says she believes this is the most important step toward fundamental political change, as there can be no political engagement to move toward democracy if people are going to be arrested for expressing their opinions. "Democracy means pluralism," she said. "That means many parties, many strands of thought. That means that we have to be able to disagree. That means we have to be able to agree to disagree."

In the spirit of her message, Aung San Suu Kyi reaffirmed her party's commitment to continue to engage the military in closed-door U.N. mediated dialogue, despite the lack of concrete progress on meaningful political transition.

For its part, the Burmese government, long diplomatically isolated, has shown a new openness and cooperation with the international community. Rangoon has allowed the U.N.'s International Labor Organization to open an office in Rangoon to investigate reports of forced labor. The Red Cross was given access to evaluate prison conditions and as well speak with political dissidents in detention.

But U.N. human rights Envoy Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, after a trip in October, said the United Nations continues to be concerned about the plight of the estimated 1,200 political prisoners still in Burmese jails. "I very clearly indicated to them [the authorities] that it is essential, it's fundamental to have the immediate and unconditional, and the word unconditional is very important, release of all [political] prisoners," said Mr. Pinheiro.

By November, the government did respond directly by freeing more than a hundred prisoners, calling it the largest single release since talks with the NLD began two years ago.

Mr. Pinheiro praised the talks with the opposition for bringing some improvement in the political climate, but insisted more is needed. "I think that what we need is serious, rigorous achievement," he said. "There was important progress, but a lot is needed [for] the country to really enter into a process of substantive political dialogue. It's not yet there."

As the year drew to a close, analysts disagreed about whether the government was poised to engage in dialogue on how to bring about democracy.

General Khin Nyunt, Burma's number three leader, has said the military leadership intends to install democracy in Burma eventually, but it will not move too quickly. He cautioned that the world is full of examples where a hasty transition led to unrest and instability. As a result, most observers in the region think any progress toward democracy in Burma will be slow, despite the efforts of the United Nations.

Part of VOA's yearend series