Daily News- May 12- 2002- Sunday

  • Battle to rebuild a shatered Burma
  • Opposition leader's release in Myanmar raises questions about strength of sanctions
  • Myanmar hotel blast kills one, injures three
  • Burmese junta hints at power sharing deal with Suu Kyi
  • One free in Burma, fifty million to go
  • Myanmar's Suu Kyi wants first trip to be to Norway

  • Battle to rebuild a shattered Burma

    Suu Kyi emerges from house arrest to discover her country on its knees

    DAMIEN McELROY IN RANGOON (Scotland on Sunday)
    IN THE close confines of a dusty second-floor office filled with yellowing scrapbooks, Aung San Suu Kyi cuts an incongruously sophisticated figure.

    Not a speck of grime or a hint of the clamour touches the remarkably neat and graceful woman who is celebrated abroad as a champion of democracy and adored at home as the icon of hope for a better Burma.

    After emerging from more than a year and a half of house arrest last week, it was straight down to work for the leader of Burma’s opposition.

    With a talks process about to get under way with the generals who run Burma, Suu Kyi has a party to build and a rapport to restore with a nation she hopes to lead into the fold of liberal democracies.

    The scale of the task is immense. To casual viewers in the West, the Nobel laureate appears immensely sophisticated, but that quality in Suu Kyi stands in stark contrast to the benighted state of Burma.

    Air conditioners temper the stultifying humidity in Suu Kyi’s office in the wooden shed that serves as the headquarters of the National League for Democracy. Otherwise the surroundings resemble a museum exhibit of a party meeting room at the tail end of the colonial era.

    A single bakelite phone sits on a worn desk. Manning it is U Lwin, one of the three septuagenarian ‘uncles’ Suu Kyi has relied on for advice and strategic support since she entered politics in 1988.

    "Outside Burma they have e-mail," he told me. "I’ve never tried it. I’ve never even seen what it looks like. It’s supposed to be wonderfully quick and informative." Modestly, U Lwin tells me he used to work for the finance ministry. Later it became clear he was finance minister for six years.

    A defector from the military regime in the late 1980s, he has seen the ruination of his country by the superstition-ridden clique of generals who have led Burma as a pariah nation since the 1960s.

    Rangoon was once a jewel of the empire in the Far East. Its colonnaded mansions stood robust against the setting sun, symbolising commercial vigour in a land endowed with rich harvests, unlimited teak and bottomless mines.

    The remnants of colonial prosperity are almost gone. At the Anglican cathedral of the Holy Trinity, the small band of worshippers still belt out ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’, surrounded by the memorial plaques erected by long-dead regiments. But empty pews outnumber worshippers and the stained windows are cracked.

    A few miles away, Moses Samuels guards Rangoon’s only synagogue, a rabbi-less meeting place for the last 20 members of a community of 2,500 traders, depleting by the month as the country sinks further into the economic mire.

    "There were plenty of Jews. We had a school, the upstairs of the synagogue was full with women on a Friday evening and the gents were downstairs," said Samuels, 51. "I will soon send from here two or three families. Most haven’t got jobs. Business is slowing down and they want to go to Israel."

    The lack of opportunity in Burma is a sad fact of life for most of its 50 million people. Twelve years have been wasted since the NLD offered the Burmese their first clear opportunity of an alternative destiny. Elections in 1990 were annulled and the party’s base decimated.

    The first task tackled by Suu Kyi was to restore the presence of the party across the country so that if the opportunity comes again, the NLD can bind the nation into a new era.

    Burma is an incredibly fractious state. Not only is the military locked in confrontation with Suu Kyi but ethnic and religious differences have grown sharper since Britain bound upper and lower Burma into a single package ripe for independence at the end of the Second World War. Vast tracts of the country are run as fiefdoms by tribal warlords, sustained by the profits of selling opium poppy and illegally logged teak across the mountainous borders.

    A new settlement for a post-dictatorship will be made or broken on knitting together a country where the army has exhausted its ability to break insurgents and instead resorted to ceasefire agreements.

    The only feasible figure capable of rallying the disparate elements is Suu Kyi. The daughter of Burma’s revolutionary hero, General Aung San, who was assassinated on the eve of independence in 1948, she represents a different version of the state that the military has ruled for 38 ruinous years.

    The generals and Suu Kyi, having embraced as negotiating partners for the future prospects of the country, is a partnership between two poles. The army cannot be wished back to barracks, but Suu Kyi is always keen to remind her interlocutors that she is the daughter of Burma’s foremost military hero.

    The second, less predictable factor, will be how well Suu Kyi can rebuild the NLD to act like the post-independence Congress in India or the current ANC in South Africa - a dominant party setting the course for the nation within a democratic framework.

    Suu Kyi has to remind Burmese, after years of slanderous propaganda, that she is at once a member of the majority and acceptable to the other races that make up the nation.

    Like Suu Kyi, the people of Burma have sought refuge in their beliefs to cope with the oppressive state system of control. Reintegration with the world will bring many painful choices.

    "The Burmese people have survived the situation both in politics and the economy by being steeped in religion," said one of Suu Kyi’s former aides. "When modernity comes the idea will be to be aggressive. But grasping for money is accorded the status of a form of social degradation - it will be a very different world."

    A new Burma will have the advantage of starting with the goodwill of the outside world as billions and billions of dollars will be unleashed, said an EU ambassador.

    Managing the transition wisely will be an even greater test of Suu Kyi’s stature than the long negotiations to ease the junta out of power.

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    Opposition leader's release in Myanmar raises questions about strength of sanctions


    BANGKOK, Thailand, May 11 Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's release from house arrest this week has raised anew the question of whether economic sanctions can pressure governments to change. The answer is crucial for Myanmar, where the military has ruled for 40 years.

    Suu Kyi's release is the first step in what is expected to be a difficult, drawn-out transition toward democracy in Myanmar, also known as Burma. The world's stance toward the country's military junta hard-line or soft will influence the pace of change, analysts say.
           ''At this point they should not be too pushy,'' said Kyaw Yin Hlaing, a Myanmar-born scholar at the National University of Singapore. He said the junta may become more recalcitrant if it feels pressured by the international community.
           Donor nations blocked virtually all development aid to Myanmar after the military violently suppressed pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988, killing hundreds of people.
           Today, the total annual foreign aid to Myanmar is equivalent to about $1 for every citizen, compared to $35 per capita for Cambodia and $68 for Laos.
           While no country has imposed a trade embargo on Myanmar, the United States banned all new investment in 1997 and the European Union has had an arms embargo and a suspension of bilateral aid in place for 11 years.
           The EU has also imposed sanctions against members of the military regime and their families through a visa ban and suspended high-level government visits to Myanmar.
           Suu Kyi has been an unflinching proponent of sanctions, saying the junta must be isolated until it allows democracy. But with a quarter of the population living below the poverty line, she might be tempted to call for the resumption of humanitarian aid.
           The sanctions and economic policy blunders by the regime have reduced Myanmar, once one of Southeast Asia's wealthiest countries, to one of its poorest.
           Heads of U.N. relief and development agencies in Myanmar last year appealed for a dramatic increase in foreign aid, warning that the country is ''on the brink of a humanitarian crisis.''
           One quarter of babies in Myanmar are born underweight, only half of its children complete primary school and an AIDS epidemic is stretching the government's resources thin.
           The largely agrarian country's exports were worth $1.3 billion in 1999, the latest year for which figures are available, but its annual imports are worth $2.5 billion.
           Despite the mixed track record of sanctions on countries such as Cuba, South Africa, Iraq and Libya, most Western analysts say sanctions helped free Suu Kyi.
           Josef Silverstein, a professor emeritus at the Rutgers University, said the punitive measures pushed the military leadership's back to the wall.
           ''They have no option of getting any money and at this point they had to take some action. Sanctions work,'' said Silverstein, who has studied Myanmar for four decades.
           Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, emerged as a democracy leader and was placed under house arrest in 1989. Her party won general elections held the next year, but the military government annulled the results.
           The junta and Suu Kyi began reconciliation talks in October 2000, a month after she was placed under house arrest. Following her release, both sides said they will take the talks a step higher and discuss substantive issues. But the talks will remain secret, they said.
           Some observers feel that it was not just sanctions that forced the junta to make the concessions.
           Cajoling by Myanmar's sympathetic neighbors, especially Malaysia, may have also helped. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad certainly not known as a human rights advocate warned the junta last year that its stubbornness toward the opposition was unwise.
           The way forward now, almost everyone agrees, is to set up a series of benchmarks for the government to meet.
           ''We should say something like this: if you do 'X,' we will do 'Y,' and so on,'' said David Steinberg, a Myanmar specialist and director of Asian Studies at Georgetown University. He said holding successful elections could be a good starting point for lifting sanctions.
           But at what point punishment should give way to rewards is a matter of contention.
           ''It doesn't do any good to yell and scream, because they (the junta) have a nationalistic attitude,'' Steinberg said.
           So far, judging by their public statements, many Western countries seem inclined toward a harder line.
           Glenys Kinnock, a British member of the European Parliament, told the BBC that the European Union should give Myanmar's government six months to release more political prisoners and phase out military rule.
           ''If in that time we do not see progress, then I think the European Union must go back to the table and put on an investment ban,'' Kinnock said

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    Myanmar hotel blast kills one, injures three


    YANGON, May 11 (Reuters) - A bomb blast at a hotel in the eastern Myanmar border town of Tachilek killed a woman and injured three other people, state-run newspapers said on Saturday.

    The Myanmar language Kyemon newspaper said government officials were investigating the explosion on Thursday in a third floor room of the Strand Hotel.

    The blast was the fourth bomb attack in eastern Myanmar near the Thai border in two weeks.

    Myanmar military officials have blamed elements of ethnic Karen National Union (KNU) for being behind some of the recent attacks.

    The KNU is one of many armed ethnic groups based near the Thai-Myanmar border that have campaigned for autonomy from the government in Yangon in the past several decades.

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    Burmese junta hints at power sharing deal with Suu Kyi

    Exclusive » regime to accept democrats' 1990 election victory ? but will still have a veto

    By Peter Popham in Rangoon

    12 May 2002

    Burma's ruling junta and Aung San Suu Kyi, the democracy leader released from house arrest here last week, have reached a secret agreement on power sharing, a Burmese political analyst with connections to the regime told The Independent on Sunday yesterday.

    "The government is prepared to go along with recognition of the election result of 1990," a landslide win by Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD)which the regime refused to endorse "but will retain veto power," he said.

    Speaking on condition of anonymity, he added: "I believe a lot of details have been agreed. They are now putting finishing touches to the agreement. The government also insists that they will not accept the dismemberment of the Union of Burma." Burma, or Myanmar as the regime calls it, has many ethnic minorities in addition to the Burmans of the lowland plains.

    As evidence of an agreement he pointed to the fact that, in contrast to her high-profile activities after she was released from house arrest in 1995, when large crowds gathered every day to hear her speak, this time Ms Suu Kyi has merely shuttled quietly between her home and the NLD party office, with side trips to an aunt, an abbot and a pagoda. "I don't think she would have agreed not to hold mass meetings without concessions on the part of the government," he said.

    Ms Suu Kyi herself has said nothing about any such agreement, but she spoke to the IoS of the disputed 1990 election in a way that suggests a new flexibility. Until now the NLD had always insisted that the regime must hand over power on the basis of that result. Last week she said: "We are not holding on to the 1990 elections in the sense of using it to gain power... what we are concerned about is the democratic principle, not so much the question of who holds power. Which means there is obviously room for negotiations as to how they choose to honour the results of the 1990 election."

    If a form of words can be agreed by which the regime "honours" the result of the 1990 election without handing over power, the way will be open further down the road for fresh elections. Ms Suu Kyi herself hinted at such a development. It was put to her that as 12 years have passed, she cannot now claim to speak for the Burmese people. "It's fair to say that," she replied but added: "And who's to say we won't get a bigger majority this time?"

    Talk of an agreement is certainly news. Nearly a week after Suu Kyi's release, Western diplomats in the impoverished south-east Asian country remain unconvinced that the military regime is ready to make meaningful changes. "Is it a developing political situation?" one of them queried sharply. "Nothing concrete has been achieved. There are no easy answers here. The regime have dug themselves a very deep hole. Coming out of that hole is going to be difficult."

    Rangoon is a confusing place. With its lakes, dense woods and temples, it is perhaps the most beautiful capital in Asia. The mid-1990s boom gave it a smattering of modern hotels and a few business towers. And despite the bubble bursting, the city today remains sleek and seductive.

    But beneath the beguiling surface lies a chaotic and deeply corrupt reality. Many hospitals cannot afford the drugs they need, teachers at some state schools demand fees from students because their salaries are not paid, the power supply is fitful, inflation is galloping, the economy is run for the convenience of the generals' businessmen cronies. Intrepid outsiders tempted to invest routinely lose their shirts.

    But pressure has been building on the generals to move in the direction of democratic change. The world has moved on since 1995, the last time major reform was in the air. Today all south-east Asian countries are firmly behind Razali Ishmail, the UN special envoy who brokered the deal that brought about Suu Kyi's release. The veteran Malaysian diplomat and businessman is trusted by Suu Kyi and her colleagues; and his closeness to Mahathir Mohammed, Malaysia's Prime Minister, has given him particular clout with the regime. The Burmese generals identify closely with Dr Mahathir because of his resolute independence from the West.

    "I think the process is irreversible," says one foreign insider. "The question now is the pace. Time is not on the government's side but nor is it on Suu Kyi's, nor on the side of the people. All need to go quite fast."

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    One free in Burma, fifty million to go

    Maureen Aung-Thwin
    Sunday May 12, 2002

    After Aung San Suu Kyi's release, the world must keep the pressure on if Burma's many other political prisoners are to realise their struggle for freedom and democracy.

    The release of Burmese democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest last week is indeed cause for celebration. However, it is also a time to remember the over thousand or more political prisoners who remain incarcerated for such "serious crimes" as talking about democracy or distributing banned literature. The rest of the Burmese populace is in effect still a hostage of the military regime. There is no aspect of daily life that is not regulated or scrutinized by the government. For example, overnight guests - even one's own relatives, if they are not part of the official household - must register with the neighborhood prefect.

    The international community's opprobrium, along with the military regime's incompetence, played a huge part in getting the generals controlling one of the world's most repressive regimes to the negotiating table. A week after Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was released from 20 months of detention - basically for trying to buy a train ticket out of Rangoon - some companies and aid organizations are already calling to lift the various sanctions against aiding and trading with the regime. Only the vigilance of the international community and the threat of continued opprobrium will keep the generals talking with Daw Suu towards a genuine and irreversible political transition.

    Burma's military, founded by Daw Suu's father, General Aung San, was once beloved and revered for liberating Burma from both British and Japanese colonial rule. Today even without an external threat, the Burmese army is one of the largest armed forces in the region. It will undoubtedly continue to play a major role in the country's future, but it must so do in its historical role as protectors, rather than predators of the people.

    Non-Burmese who follow world events are usually entranced by the long struggle for democracy in Burma because of the charisma and elegance of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Few are aware of the hardship and daily indignities endured by the average Burmese, the quiet courage of those languishing in prison or the humor and creativity of citizens who have learned to survive the system. Daw Suu is the first to acknowledge this. She told a reporter in one of her first interviews after her release, "Many have suffered more than I have, much more. I don't have the right to complain."

    Largely unknown to the international community, Burma's most prominent political prisoner after Daw Suu is Min Ko Naing. This is the nom de guerre meaning "Conqueror of Kings", of Paw U Tun, the fiery student leader of the nationwide uprising in the summer of 1988. Throughout the 1980s, as a student at the Rangoon Arts and Sciences University, Min Ko Naing had somehow managed to build a nationwide political dissident network in the dangerous shadow of one of the world's most watchful police states. In 1988 his passion and oratory at rallies brought out millions of Burmese into the streets. Min Ko Naing was arrested early in 1989 and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Although his sentence was reduced to 10 years-now completed-he remains in jail in ill health. Though suffering in solitary confinement for most of these years, Min Ko Naing is defiant. On the rare occasions he was able to send a message outside, he simply said, "Don't give up."

    Poet and essayist U Tin Moe, who is in his 60s, fared better. In 1991, the year Daw Aung Suu Kyi received the Nobel Peace Prize, U Tin Moe, who headed a committee of Daw Suu's National League for Democracy (NLD), was arrested and later sentenced to four years in prison. In jail U Tin Moe was prohibited from possessing any reading or writing materials, so he was comforted by the discovery of one of his short poems scratched on the dirty walls by a previous prisoner, a poem for which he was famous: "The cigarette's burnt down, the sun is brown, will someone please take me home now."

    U Tin Moe's colleague and contemporary, U Win Tin, who is still in jail, once expounded publicly on the poem's relevance: He said: "There are large numbers of important people who don't know that they should say 'Please take me home now.' Today there are many, many political problems in our country, so many insurmountable difficulties, so many unspeakable matters - and why? Because if some leading people knew when their cigar was burnt down, when the sun was brown and knew when they should say 'Please take me home', then our country's politics would not have gotten into such a mess."

    U Tin Moe wrote another poem that greatly annoyed the authorities. It was about Dr Michael Aris, Daw Suu's British husband, the renowned Tibetologist who died of cancer in England soon after the junta refused a visa for him to go to Burma one last time to say goodbye to his wife. When the authorities started warning him against helping the NLD, U Tin Moe decided he was too old to survive another possible incarceration and decided to leave the country and join his daughter who lived in Belgium.

    Obtaining passports in Burma is not a civic right. What's more, passports cost exorbitant brokerage fees and require cunning to get one, especially for national treasures like poet laureates who are barred from leaving the country without permission. Fortunately for U Tin Moe, neither the passport broker nor the immigration officials had enough literary savvy to recognize the poet's real name - U Ba Gyan - which his passport carried. No one even knew he had fled. The escape was discovered when they heard him being interviewed on the Burmese Service of the BBC.

    The Min Ko Naings and U Tin Moes of Burma deserve to see their struggle through to the proper end. If the international community is genuinely interested in helping to end Burma's 40 year old nightmare, Burma policy among the major players should be coordinated, consistent and clear. Europe, the United States and Japan at least should have a common position on Burma that promotes a genuine transition to eventual civilian rule. For example, there should be no major aid or investment in Burma until all political prisoners have been released, freedom of expression and association is guaranteed. In other words, until real and irreversible political and economic reform has taken place.

    Burma today is beset by a host of problems after forty years of military dictatorship: A ruined economy, a devastated education system, political uncertainty and a burgeoning hiv-aids epidemic. But the country is not Afghanistan or East Timor. It is blessed with a vast abundance of natural resources, and even after decades of neglect, possesses a bright, youthful population who are tired of civil war, hungry for knowledge, and eager to rejoin the world. Burma is in an enviable position to draw from the successes of other transitions and learn to avoid the pitfalls of others.

    Maureen Aung-Thwin is Director of the Burma Project and Southeast Asia Initiative of the Open Society Institute.

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    Myanmar's Suu Kyi wants first trip to be to Norway


    YANGON, May 12 — Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel peace prize in 1991, said again on Sunday that she wanted her first trip abroad since being released from house arrest last week to be to Norway, home of the prize.
           Suu Kyi said in a telephone conversation with a Japanese politician, broadcast by the Voice of America, that she would like to show her gratitude for support given by Norway.
           ''We owe the Norwegian people and government a debt of gratitude for relentlessly giving us complete support in our struggle for democracy,'' she said.
           During her last house arrest in central Yangon which ended last Monday, Suu Kyi was quoted as saying Norway would be the first country she would visit if she were able to travel abroad freely and able to return home to Myanmar.
           The charismatic opposition leader did not say when she would make her first foreign trip, but said last week that the ruling military government had not imposed any conditions on her movement. The Nobel award to Suu Kyi helped put the spotlight on the military regime which has ruled the country for four decades and violently suppressed opposition.
           The Norwegian Nobel Institute last week hailed her release and urged the Myanmar military to take more steps towards democracy.
           ''She is a unique woman, some say the most shining of recent Nobel winners,'' Olav Njolstad, acting director of the Nobel Institute, told Reuters. ''She is brave. She has fought for democracy under extremely difficult conditions for herself and for her people.''
           Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy Party won a landslide election victory in 1990 but the military did not allow them to rule.
           In her broadcast conservation with Japan's Social Democratic Party chief Takako Doi, Suu Kyi said while highly appreciative of Japan's past support for her campaign for democracy in Myanmar, she had hoped the Japanese government would have done more.
           She said Japanese government support for her cause did not match that of ordinary Japanese people.
           ''We would like the Japanese government to give us as much support as the Japanese people do,'' she said, adding that Japan would be high on the list of countries she would like to visit.


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