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Burma's Pro-Democracy Activist Marks One Year Anniversary of Release - 2003-05-06

It has been one year since Burma's military government released pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest as a sign that it was willing to discuss reforms. Leaders of her party say although they have been allowed to resume some political activities, the dialogue aimed at bringing democracy to Burma has stalled.

In the year since Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest, she has made nearly a dozen trips into the Burmese countryside, and her National League for Democracy, or NLD, has re-opened 100 party offices.

NLD spokesman U Lwin said this has allowed the party to build support. "Since she has this opportunity of going around the country and meet the people, that is why we have more support from the people. This is what we gained," he said.

Mr. U Lwin said the party also has greater contact now with foreign governments, humanitarian groups and with the news media. He says 420 party leaders have been released from prison, although 120 are still detained.

Aung San Suu Kyi set off Tuesday on a trip to Burma's Kachin state, to work with party members and meet leaders of ethnic minority groups.

In 1990, the NLD won national elections, after decades of military rule, but was never allowed to govern. Hundreds of party leaders, including dozens of elected parliament members, were imprisoned, and Aung San Suu Kyi underwent long periods of house arrest.

Last May, the government lifted a travel ban on her. It called the move a goodwill gesture intended to lead to dialogue and reconciliation with the opposition.

Mr. U Lwin said, however, reconciliation has stalled. "What we really need is the reconciliation movement. So far we don't have a chance of getting together for the dialogue. That is the most important one [issue]," he said.

The lack of progress is due in part to a rivalry between the number two leader of the ruling military council, Army Commander General Maung Aye, and the number three leader, intelligence chief General Khin Nyunt, according to Chaiyachoke Chulasiriwong, a professor at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.

He said General Khin Nyunt, who favors greater dialogue with the opposition, became more cautious because of the declining influence of his patron, former military leader Ne Win. Mr. Ne Win died five months ago after several years of failing health.

"When Ne Win got sick and then died, this kind of balance of power has been shifted somewhat toward Maung Aye. I think that both of them probably are looking at the top post in the future," Professor Chulasiriwong said.

Many exiled Burmese dissidents say power struggles are not a major cause of the stalemate. They say the main cause is that the military government does not want to relinquish power. Other analysts say the military leadership might consider a power-sharing arrangement but wants to ensure that its interests are protected in any deal with civilian politicians.

The Burmese government said the unity of the country is its main priority. And in a reference to various rebellions by ethnic minorities, the government says it cannot hand over power until the union of Burma is assured. Critics say the government's authoritarian policies are a main cause of the uprisings.

The lack of political freedom and personal liberties has led the international community to maintain strict economic sanctions against Burma. And European governments, under pressure from human rights groups, want to strengthen the sanctions. Some international donors, however, warn that isolation is contributing to Burma's economic and social decline, and could lead to a humanitarian crisis.

Professor Chaiyachoke says the Burmese government is more concerned with the internal political situation than with international sanctions. "I hope that the crisis within the government is finished as soon as possible because as long as the politics within the government go on, that doesn't ensure any kind of development for the people," he said.

NLD spokesman U Lwin said party officials think one way to move toward dialogue is to work with the government on humanitarian programs. This is a recent policy shift for the party, which previously opposed foreign aid, saying it strengthened the government. However, Mr. U Lwin said his party insists on transparency and accountability to ensure that foreign aid actually reaches the Burmese people.