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US Says More Reforms Needed Before It Lifts Burmese Sanctions - 2002-05-06

The Bush administration and others in the United States are welcoming the release of Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Many are hopeful her freedom from house arrest is just the first step toward toward real political reform in Burma.

Secretary of State Colin Powell says he is very pleased the Burmese government has released Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest and will allow her to participate in political activities again.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher later elaborated on Mr. Powell's brief comment, saying the United States hopes Burma's action means the government is serious about moving forward with political reform and national reconciliation. He says Washington will be watching closely to see if Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi is given full freedom of movement as the Rangoon government promised.

The United States has sanctions in place against Burma's military government, including bans on aid and investment. Mr. Boucher says the release of Aung San Suu Kyi by itself will not prompt the U.S. government to ease those sanctions. "We see this as a first step toward political dialogue in this country. Much more remains to be done to achieve political reform and national reconciliation, and we're looking to see concrete steps that do that before considering what to do about sanctions," he said.

Aung San Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy, won more than 80 percent of the parliamentary seats in the 1990 election, but the military government refused to hand over power. She has spent eight of the last 12 years under house arrest.

The Washington director of the Free Burma Coalition, Jeremy Woodrum, says his group is excited by Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi's release and hopes it will lead to real political reforms.

"We are cautious because we know there are still at least several hundred and likely two thousand political prisoners inside Burma, and violence continues in Burma's ethnic areas," he said. "But at the same time, we do think this represents a significant step forward."

Mr. Woodrum hopes the military government will keep its promise that Aung San Suu Kyi's release is unconditional and will allow her to travel so she can meet with members of the National League for Democracy. He expects both sides to show flexibility and not be as confrontational as they were in the past. Authorities imposed the most recent house arrest order in September, 2000, after Aung San Suu Kyi tried to leave Rangoon in defiance of government travel restrictions.

Mr. Woodrum says the Burmese government probably agreed to her release at this time because of international pressure as well as the country's current economic troubles. In addition, he says, there may be some members of the military government who just want to do the right thing.

The human rights group Amnesty International also welcomes Aung San Suu Kyi's freedom. Amnesty's director for Asia, T. Kumar, calls it significant but says she should not have been put under house arrest in the first place.

And he urges Burma to free the 1,500 other political prisoners still being held. "If they are sincere, then they will start releasing little by little, I presume," he said. "I am hopeful, but this is too early in the game. But releasing a major prisoner is a good sign."

The director of Asian Studies at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, David Steinberg, says Aung San Suu Kyi's release by itself does not resolve anything. But he says it ends Burma's political stalemate and sets the stage for more mature dialogue between the military and the National League for Democracy. Professor Steinberg hopes they will be able to agree on a timetable for a new constitution and eventually new elections. But he cautions that the military is likely to retain some of its political power even if Burma adopts democratic reforms. "The military will keep control over certain critical decisions in the society. One will be the unity of the state," he said. "Second will be the autonomy of the armed forces. And they will also have, I think, veto power under any future government over critical decisions affecting the future of the country.

Professor Steinberg says the political system that emerges in Burma will not mirror western democracies, but instead will more likely be a multi-party system similar to what existed in Indonesia under the strong rule of former leader Suharto.