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UN Envoy Visits Burma to Encourage Reforms - 2004-03-02

A United Nations envoy is visiting Burma to encourage the military government to follow through on plans for political reforms. While skeptics remain, analysts and Rangoon-based business owners see the plan as the best opportunity for political change in recent years.

Diplomat Razali Ismail's visit to Rangoon is focusing on the government's so-called road map for political reforms. The United Nations envoy met Tuesday with ethnic minority groups to discuss their role in a planned conference to draft a new constitution.

He also met with Prime Minister Khin Nyunt and arranged to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the opposition National League for Democracy who is under house arrest.

After more than two years of work, Mr. Razali's efforts to bring about national reconciliation have made little progress. The government released Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest in 2002, but last year detained her again, along with dozens of the NLD's senior members.

As a result, many Western nations, including the United States, tightened economic sanctions on Burma, damaging its already weak economy.

The sanctions led Prime Minister Khin Nyunt last August to set out a seven-step road map to reform. The plan calls for a national convention this year to draft a constitution leading to an elected government.

Human rights groups view the road map with skepticism.

"One thing is definitely important and that is that they have to come up with a credible plan," said Jusuf Wanandi of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta, who recently visited Rangoon. "That includes timetables and the participation of every stakeholder - and of course that includes the international community - particularly ASEAN, should be really actively involved in this whole process so that it can become something real."

Mr. Wanandi says the government must guarantee security and freedom of speech for participants in the constitutional convention if the reform process is to gain international support.

Many business people and others in Burma think the road map is a good start toward political reform.

Ross Dunkley, editor of the government-affiliated English language newspaper, The Myanmar Times, thinks the prospects for reform are the best in years.

"I've never seen anything as positive as right now," he said. "So I believe the government is committed to doing this and I believe they are going to carry through on their promise to execute the seven-point map."

Mr. Dunkley says the improved climate has led to more confidence within the business community.

He is convinced the government is committed and that by 2006, several of the road map steps will have been accomplished.

Making progress by 2006 is important because that year Burma takes up chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. There are fears within ASEAN that the group's dialogue partners - including the United States, Japan, Australia and the European Union - may boycott the annual ASEAN conference if Burma has not made reforms.

Despite the business community's upbeat assessment, others worry the road map may not be enough to bring democracy to Burma.

"We see what General Khin Nyunt presented on the 30th of August as an outline of the State Peace and Development Council's position," said Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan, the regional representative for the rights group, Non-Violence International, which recently released a report on Burma's reform plans. "But it's not really anything that's very new," he continued. "It's more or less identical to the first public order that was issued by the State Law and Order Restoration Council in 1990."

But Mr. Moser-Puangsuwan says there is reason for hope because so many people in Burma, and the region, recognize the need for reform.

"The sign for hope I see right now is [that it is] generally admitted by all sides that the current situation is not acceptable, and it can't go on, there's got to be changes," he said.

Many diplomats and observers say much depends on Burma's military ability to persuade ethnic groups and the opposition, as well as wider international community, to trust the reform process.

The military has ruled Burma since 1962, and the current governing council took power in 1988. In 1990, the NLD shocked the generals by winning national elections. Instead of letting the party take power, the government jailed hundreds of NLD members, and kept Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for most of the past 14 years.