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Democratic Winds Blowing Close to Burma - 2004-05-06

There is new hope that Burma’s pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi may be released from house arrest. And the ruling military government has announced it will hold free and fair elections. VOA’s Prerna Kumar looks at what this may mean for the ongoing struggle for democracy in Burma.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi has spent much of the last 15 years in some form of detention. As the leader of Burma’s main opposition party -- the National League for Democracy, or NLD, she has become the embodiment of the Burmese people’s aspirations for a free and democratic Burma.

The ruling military junta detained Aung San Suu Kyi last year along with other party members following a clash between NLD supporters and a pro-junta mob in northern Burma. She narrowly escaped death and the generals quickly locked her up, calling it “protective custody” where she remains today. Nonetheless, the pro-democracy leader’s popularity has grown to the dismay of the regime. And there may be signs of reform ahead.

Last week, Burmese officials allowed nine top NLD members to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi. Previously, the government had released two detained NLD members and allowed the party to re-open its Rangoon headquarters -- a year after it had been shut down. The regime also has invited the NLD and other opposition parties to attend a national convention this month to draft a new constitution for Burma -- the first of seven steps in the military’s “roadmap to democracy” announced last year. So why has the Burmese government loosened its grip on the opposition? Brian Joseph of the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington says the military is under pressure to change its image in time to host the 2006 ASEAN summit. “The regime in Burma understands like as do its ASEAN partners that the current regime system is not acceptable to the larger international community. So they are under pressure both domestically and internationally, and from their regional partners to design a system of governance which is at one level more democratic looking, if not democratic.”

David Steinberg, director of the Asian Studies Program at Georgetown University in Washington, says Burma’s military realizes it must reform if it wants to remain in power. “Their policies have not been effective economically. Politically, they have got themselves in trouble, internationally and internally. So I think they recognize that for the sake of the military they have to get out of direct power not indirect power.” The military has ruled Burma since independence from Britain in 1948. It controls key industries such as oil and mining. Most analysts agree that its rule is marked by corruption and mismanagement. It has also been accused of gross human rights abuses against ethnic minorities, involving the forced relocation of civilians and widespread use of forced labor, including children.

Last week, the 53-country UN Human Rights Commission unanimously adopted a resolution condemning the military regime’s human rights record. Ambassador Richard Williamson, head of the US delegation to the commission, said that Aung San Suu Kyi and her party's leaders must be released so they can participate in this month’s convention. He also blamed the military regime for denying religious freedom to Burma’s ethnic minorities. “We remain deeply troubled by the Burmese military's abuse of ethnic minority civilians, including rapes, torture, murder, forced relocations and confiscation of property. The government continues to restrict freedom of religion, coercively promote Buddhism over other religions and impose restrictions on religious minorities.”

In 1990, the military junta made its first attempt to move toward democracy by holding elections in the country. But it rejected the NLD’s landslide victory. In 1996, it convened a national convention to draft a constitution, but opposition parties walked out, accusing the government of trying to manipulate and silence their members. The opposition remains skeptical of this year’s convention and the military’s pledge to restore democracy.

Soe Pyne, a member of the opposition based in Washington, says the forum will only serve to strengthen the regime’s grip on society. “It’s going to be a presidential system. The president will appoint all the judiciary and executive branches. It’s going to be like creating another dictatorship in Burma.”

Brian Joseph of the National Endowment for Democracy says Burma’s military is in a tight spot and must somehow accommodate Aung San Suu Kyi. “I think the challenge to the regime is how do you include Aung San Suu Kyi in the national convention and yet limit her participation. If she is allowed to participate and the NLD, it will be very difficult for the regime to keep them confined to a limited sphere of political influence.” Georgetown University’s David Steinberg says Aung San Suu Kyi has strong political and public support in the country. However, he warns that her release alone will not bring democracy to Burma. Any government in power in Burma, he says, will have to come to terms with the minorities that form 30 % of the population and have been disenfranchised by the regime. Armed rebels from 17 minority groups have clashed with government troops for more than half a decade. While many fought for Burmese independence more than half a century ago, today almost all merely seek greater local authority and equality. Analyst David Steinberg says democracy has a slim chance in Burma unless the minorities are included in the constitutional talks. “The [new] constitution which the national convention is now considering will have to deal with the allocation of power. What you’ve had under military is a unitary state -- everything controlled by the state. Minorities don’t like that. Then how much local autonomy can they have?”

The National Endowment for Democracy’s Brian Joseph adds that Burma’s rulers need to take more credible measures to demonstrate they are serious about establishing civilian rule. “Aung San Suu Kyi can be thrown in jail again, and the NLD offices can be shut down again. There still remain 1,500 political prisoners in Burma. Until the regime begins to release them in significant numbers, not just 50 here or 50 there which are often offset by other arrests, unless they take steps that are irreversible; it’s unlikely we’ll see positive developments in the country.”

Some analysts say Burma is unlikely to make any immediate move toward a full democracy. But they say this month’s constitutional forum -- now scheduled for May 17th -- may be an important first step. National League for Democracy members say they will not attend the convention unless Aung San Suu Kyi is released from house arrest.