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Burma:  A Step Backward? - 2003-06-03

The Burmese government has ignored calls from governments and international rights groups demanding the release of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. She and other opposition leaders were taken into custody Friday after clashes between her supporters and pro-government demonstrators in northern Burma. The government also closed all the offices of her party, the National League for Democracy.

The crackdown is a serious setback for efforts at political reconciliation.

The Burmese government freed pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest just more than a year ago, after international pressure and intervention by a U.N. special envoy. In the past year, she has been allowed to travel around Burma to meet with members of her political party, the National League for Democracy.

Although there were still constraints on her activities, Burmese in exile and others who follow Burmese developments had renewed hope that the military government was becoming more willing to work toward political reconciliation. But there was no real dialogue between Aung San Suu Kyi and the generals ruling Burma.

While she tried to keep a low profile, she attracted increasingly larger crowds and periodic incidents occurred. Former Burmese political prisoner, Aung Din, said when the government picked up Aung San Suu Kyi last week, it made a serious step backward.

"They saw that Aung San Suu Kyi still has the popularity. Aung San Suu Kyi still has the popular support of the people. Also they found the people-power movement starting to revitalize, so this is what they are scared of...They decided to isolate Aung San Suu Kyi from the people," he said.

Aung Din was vice chairman of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions and a leader of the 1988 democracy movement when he was arrested by the Burmese government. He was imprisoned from 1989 to 1993. He is now director of policy and strategy at the Free Burma Coalition, an umbrella organization of exiled Burmese dissidents in the United States and Canada.

Aung Din said the government orchestrated the attack on Aung San Suu Kyi's entourage last Friday, using military, police, and members of a government organized group called the Union Solidarity and Development Association. He said the government offered freedom to criminals in prison who participated in the ambush.

The government said members of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy initiated the clash by attacking pro-goverment groups, and said it has temporarily detained her and her colleagues to protect them.

Burma specialist, Professor David Steinberg said if members of the Union Solidarity and Development Association were involved in the incident, it must have been with government and military permission.

"There is no question that the military are the ones that have the political power, and the military power. They are the ones that must bear the responsibility for any incident. Whoever might have caused it, however it might have started is quite irrelevant, since they are the ones who have the control," Mr. Steinberg said.

Professor Steinberg, the director of Asian studies at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, said the crackdown on the National League for Democracy has undercut whatever limited progress was made toward reconciliation. He said it has undermined the efforts of U.N. special envoy to Burma, Razali Ismail who brokered closed-door reconciliation talks between the government and Aung San Suu Kyi in 2000.

"I think he was very important in the freeing of Aung San Suu Kyi. The role of the United Nations has been, I think, critical," he said. "And Ambassador Razali has been a positive influence. That he is going back now is significant, because I know in the past he has been rather depressed about the lack of progress since Aung San Suu Kyi was released."

Ambassador Razali was planning to make his tenth visit to Rangoon later this week. He has said he still hopes to make that visit.

Aung Din, however, does not see the work of Ambassador Razali and the United Nations as significant. "We don't think the United Nations can do something better for our people of Burma. The United Nations can make numerous resolutions demanding the military to stop the human rights abuses, something like that. But there is no such a mechanism to enforce those resolutions," he said.

Mr. Aung Din said the government of Burma is not going to make democratic reforms as long as the international community is divided on how to treat Burma. He noted the United States and the European Union have imposed economic sanctions to try to force Rangoon to enter a dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi.

But Burma's neighbors, including China, India, Japan and the countries of Southeast Asia, prefer a softer approach; encouraging a political dialogue while maintaining economic ties with Rangoon.

Professor Steinberg said the generals in Rangoon should pay attention to the industrialized world, because they are poised to impose further sanctions on Burma. "When they released Aung San Suu Kyi, there was a great euphoria in the external world, outside of Burma. And at that time, I told the Burmese government that, 'you have created expectations, and if you do not live up to those expectations, the situation will be worse,' because there is already in the Congress a move to have added sanctions on Burma and the European Union has given Burma until October, I believe, to make some positive changes. Otherwise they will impose greater sanctions," he said.

Professor Steinberg said the crackdown is a setback not only to political reform, but can also hinder efforts to address the country's health, education, and humanitarian needs. And if the economy worsens, he says, that can lead to an increase in migrant labor problems and illegal drug trafficking.