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Organization: Forum for Democracy and Human Rights
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Date: Sun, 13 Oct 1996 21:15:01 +0000
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October 13, 1996: One more anniversary: one more ban on a party congress: 
another crackdown on pro-democracy activists that ignited a fresh bout of 
international pressure and a slide back into the usual campaigns and 
routines. All this the week before last when the anniversary of the 
founding of the National League for Democracy(NLD), at a height of a 
struggle for democracy in 1988, created another flutter and controversy 
in Myanmar.

The Nobel Laureate and National League for Democracy leader, Ms. Aung San 
Suu Kyi, called a three- day party congress to commemorate the anniversary 
and discuss the future of the struggle for restoration of democracy in the 
country, which they still call Burma.

The State Law and Order Restoration Council banned that conference and 
rounded up National League for Democracy activists and sympathizers 
expected to attend the congress. The authorities cut off all access to the 
residence of MS. Suu Kyi on the University Avenue. Barricades and 
checkpoints on the road effectively prevented people, from going to her 

The US was prompt in announcing a travel ban on all Myanmar officials, 
leaders and their families in America. And Yangon retaliated by halting 
the issue of visas to all Americans except diplomats and investors.

Myanmar watchers agree that both these steps do not mean much. Both sides 
have hardly any relationship to talk about or be affected by such strains in 
diplomatic ties. The US has also warned that economic sanctions may be 
clamped if the SLORC either arrests Ms. Suu Kyi or does anything to ban 
opposition political activity.

Analysts consider Japan's subtle warning more significant, because of its 
clout over the Myanmar generals and its economy. The Foreign Ministry in 
Tokyo called for the release of all detained pro-democracy activists and 
conveyed through diplomatic channels its concern over the crackdown and 
the rigidity of the junta in handling the political issues.

But far the most important and of immediate relevance to Myanmar was the 
voice of Association of South East Asian Nations. Differences within the 
seven-member ASEAN community surfaced during the latest crisis in Yangon. 
ASEAN Foreign Ministers were in New York attending the UN General 
Assembly and other meetings. They had an informal meet that took up, among 
other issues, Myanmar's application for full membership of ASEAN in July 

Encouraged by Malaysia, a high level delegation led by the Prime Minister and 
Chairman of the SLORC, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, which visited Kuala Lumpur 
last month, handed in the application to join ASEAN next year itself. Myanmar 
became an observer in July this year at the annual ministerial conference in 

According to the ASEAN sources, Malaysia and Indonesia are keen on roping in 
Myanmar next year along with the other two entrants. They also want to 
convey to the West a clear message that ASEAN will not tolerate any 
interference in its internal affairs to the bogey of human rights and 

However with the lame duck Government in Bangkok, Thailand did not want to 
take the issue too far. So, it stopped with just suggesting more time for 
Myanmar to prepare for ASEAN membership.

But the Philippines President, Mr. Fidel Ramos, said it might be time for 
ASEAN to review its policy of "Constrictive Engagement" with the military 
regime because this had not helped open up the economy and the polity to 
more reforms in Myanmar.

The first informal summit of ASEAN which will become an annual feature 
hereafter, will be held in Jakarta either by November or early December. 
The seven leaders will review regional and international developments, 
and also meet their counterparts from the three future members-- Laos, 
Cambodia and Myanmar. The meeting will give the ASEAN leaders an opportunity 
to talk informally to Sen. Gen. Than Shwe on what the junta has in  mind for 
the future.

It is quite clear that none of the ASEAN countries wants to isolate Myanmar 
at this stage. Officials explain "We have seen what happened to Yangon during 
the early phase of isolation between 1988 and 1990. We do not want that to
happen again. It was a conscious ASEAN policy to engage Myanmar, 
economically. And this began in 1991-92. Apart from Japan ASEAN is a major 
player in Myanmar today and cannot afford to lose that role or its 
significance. If we pull out, we know Yangon will go closer to China and 
this can create fresh problems. Myanmar has shown how it can survive in 
isolation, even if its people have to suffer in the bargain.

Sources say that without openly interfering in what it calls the "internal 
affairs" of Myanmar, ASEAN will urge SLORC to quickly finalize the new 
constitution. ASEAN may be content with a broad democratic framework-- 
the Indonesia model has already been accepted by the junta and will have to 
be formalized.

But the US and EU will not let Myanmar off the hook if the junta decides to 
isolate and marginalise Ms. Suu Kyi and her pro-democracy movement. They 
are insisting on a dialogue between the two and a consensus on national 

Discussions in the region have also focused on what kind of a compromise is 
possible in Myanmar. SLORC is very clear in wanting to legitimize and 
constitutionalise the role of the armed forces in parliament and in the 
sociopolitical structure of the country--as in Indonesia. The National 
Convention, which is drafting a new constitution, is working on the details 
to provide for at least 20 per cent of the seats in a bicameral parliament to 
the armed forces. And this is something that is anathema to Ms. Suu Kyi.

It has been suggested, in academic circles and by western diplomats in the 
region, that ASEAN can play a positive and catalytic role in beginning a 
political dialogue in Myanmar. The suggestion is that, without interfering in 
the domestic affairs, or imposing any solution, ASEAN through a diplomatic 
initiative, can bring the two parties to the negotiation table. SLORC and the 
National League for Democracy can then work out a solution-- if need be an 
interim set up and then a more democratic exercise.

"Unless there is a dialogue, there can be no solution. Despite repeated 
attempts by Ms. Suu Kyi to seek that dialogue, there has been no response 
from the ruling military leaders. And till they relent, I guess Washington 
and Brussels are not going give up. We are convinced that ASEAN has a 
major role to play in resolving this political crisis in Myanmar, in its 
own interests and for regional peace and stability," says an European 

In the absence of a dialogue, Ms. Suu Kyi will be waiting for the next 
opportunity to challenge the junta. She will try to revive her week-end 
meetings and may plan another party congress to coincide with the first 
anniversary of the pullout of the National League for Democracy from the 
National Convention last year. And the battle will go on in Yangon.
(V. Jayanth)
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