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The Sydney Morning Herald: FAITH, H

The Sydney Morning Herald: FAITH, HOPE & DESTINY
Monday, October 27, 1997                     


[Nobel Peace laureate and democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is
effectively a prisoner once more. But, writes MARK BAKER, there are
signs that her patient defiance is finally tilting the balance of power
in Burma.]

ON THE CORNER of a busy intersection a huge billboard proclaims ?The
People?s Desire? in the livid red shades of old Maoist propaganda.
?Crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common
enemy,? it screams, exhorting the masses to oppose the ?stooges holding
negative views?.

A hundred metres away, down the once gracious sweep of Rangoon?s
University Avenue, the people?s real desire stays hidden from the world,
behind the gates from where she once addressed thousands of supporters
who flocked to her regular weekend rallies. Steel barriers now block the
street to traffic. Soldiers in camouflage fatigues and flak jackets
stand guard, while military intelligence agents question anyone who

Two years after being released from six years under house arrest, Aung
San Suu Kyi is effectively a prisoner once more. Her old house beside
Inya Lake is under constant surveillance. Her telephone is tapped and
often cut. Visitors must be screened and approved by the authorities.
And on the rare occasions that she dares venture out Suu Kyi is tailed
by squads of security men.

?We never see her now and we can?t go to hear her speak any more, but we
know she is there and we know she is still fighting for us,? says a
young student activist who has been unable to study since universities
and colleges were shut down after a wave of protests last November. ?If
people try to contact her there will be a knock on the door in the
night. There are spies everywhere.?

In the schizophrenic demonology of the generals who rule Burma with a
hard hand and a humourless heart, Suu Kyi is at once a dangerous stooge
of the nation?s foreign enemies and a naive political irrelevance: ?The
inexperienced lady.? The truth is that the Nobel Peace laureate is

A decade after the daughter of General Aung San, the hero of Burma?s
independence struggle, came home to nurse her dying mother and stayed to
head a peaceful revolution that ended in a bloodbath, she remains the
great hope of Burmese democracy and the greatest obstacle to the
ambitions of a corrupt and brutal regime. It is a fact eloquently
demonstrated by the obsessive measures with which the military has
sought to isolate and silence her.

Now, more than seven years after the army usurped the landslide election
victory of her National League for Democracy (NLD) and a year after she
was barred from any public political activity, Aung San Suu Kyi?s stoic
resistance is still a potent force for change. And tentative signs are
emerging that her patient defiance is beginning to tilt the power
balance in Burma.

At the end of last month, the NLD was allowed to hold its first national
convention in seven years. An estimated 1,300 party delegates gathered
from around the country and close to 800 were permitted to attend the
two-day meeting in the grounds of Aung San Suu Kyi?s home. In previous
years, hundreds of NLD MPs and party workers have been rounded up on the
eve of the scheduled congress, detained without charge and aggressively
interrogated. Some of them still languish in Rangoon?s notorious Insein

In a perhaps equally remarkable development, 10 days before the
congress, the ruling State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC)
invited the NLD chairman, Aung Shwe, and two other party officials to a
formal meeting with one of the regime?s most important figures, the
so-called ?Secretary One?, Lieutenant-General Khin Nyunt. The invitation
was preceded by exploratory talks in July.

In the end, the NLD pulled out of the proposed meeting at the last
moment, arguing that the regime?s refusal to include Suu Kyi was an
attempt to divide the party. But the proposal of even a qualified
dialogue has been seen by Rangoon-based diplomats and some Burmese
political analysts as a significant move by a regime that has offered
only hostility and harassment to their popular adversaries over the past
two years -- and particularly since Suu Kyi pulled her delegates out of
the sham convention drafting a new constitution early last year.

In a further modest hint of progress, the SLORC on Friday approved
another gathering of about 200 NLD luminaries and supporters at Suu
Kyi?s house for a ?social event? to mark the end of the Buddhist Lent,
albeit after surrounding the place with almost as many troops and
turning away several hundred other guests.

A senior diplomat said: ?Things are definitely moving. It?s a more
positive environment than we?ve seen for a long time, although people
remain cautious about predicting how far and how fast it will go.?

Tin Oo, the former Burmese army commander who is now one of Suu Kyi?s
most trusted deputies, agrees. ?I am more optimistic now about the
future,? he says. ?Some of the senior military officers now see the need
for a political settlement with the NLD and are trying to move forward.?

No-one, however, believes that the SLORC, if indeed it is edging towards
a deal, is doing so for reasons other than sheer necessity. Two powerful
factors are now weighing heavily on the once intractable regime: a
mounting international clamour for reform that is becoming impossible to
ignore and the rapid disintegration of the Burmese economy.

As the United States and the European Union strengthen trade and
investment sanctions against Burma, the nine-member Association of
South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) -- the neighbours whose approval the
regime craves -- are quietly stepping up the pressure for change. Having
ignored Western protests and admitted Burma to the regional grouping
three months ago, ASEAN is now prodding the SLORC to give credibility to
its approach of ?constructive engagement? by opening a dialogue with Suu

The present ASEAN chairman is the Philippines and its President, Fidel
Ramos, a former martial law general turned champion of democracy who
pressed the case for change during a visit to Rangoon late last week.
The tougher stance ASEAN has taken against Cambodia in the wake of the
July coup in Phnom Penh also appears to have emboldened its approach to
the SLORC, as well as indications that the regime?s recalcitrance could
derail an important new dialogue with the Europeans.

A senior diplomat said: ?The SLORC is definitely feeling the pressure
now. They are starting to get a lot of stick from ASEAN and there is a
growing recognition that somewhere along the line they are going to have
to compromise. Everyone is telling them that they have to improve their
image and they have to more forward.?

Another pressing incentive is the country?s deepening economic malaise.
Burma continues to teeter on the verge of bankruptcy. Comparisons are
now being drawn with the economic crisis that helped spark the big
pr-democracy uprising in 1988 which catapulted Aung San Suu Kyi to
political prominence and which was brutally suppressed with the loss of
at least 3000 lives.

Inflation is soaring, with the local currency, the kyat, worth barely
half its black market value a year ago. The trade deficit is widening
and foreign investment is drying up while military spending continues to
swallow half the national budget. There are now also fears of widespread
famine after recent severe floods destroyed the rice crop across large
areas of the country.

?The situation is disastrous,? a Rangoon-based analyst said. ?The
economy is in dire straits, their foreign exchange holdings are
virtually nil and they clearly are unable to manage the situation.?

The much-touted -- and delayed -- Visit Burma Year has been a monumental
flop. Despite predictions of as many as 500,000 visitors, fewer than
50,000 are estimated to have turned up. Dozens of new luxury hotels,
some built to launder drug-trade profits, are mostly deserted, with
occupancy rates said to be averaging about 20 per cent. New domestic and
international air services have been slashed and two foreign carriers
recently quit their Burma routes.

Despite the SLORC?s continued boasts about rising foreign investment,
independent sources say there has been a marked slowdown over the past
year as international trade sanctions have begun to bite. Washington has
banned all new investment in Burma by US companies and the EU last month
extended its sanctions, which include the suspension of trade
preferences and bans on non-humanitarian aid and defence assistance.
Consumer campaign in the West, including targeting of Foster?s and
Ericsson in Australia, have persuaded more than a dozen transnational
companies to quit the Burmese market.

The SLORC, despite hints of political compromise, is maintaining a
public posture of total opposition to any contact with Suu Kyi, who
holds the post of NLD secretary-general.

The state-run [Pauk Sa] newspaper declared in an editorial early this
month: ?The dialogue they are demanding, thinking it to be ambrosia,
cannot be cooked up in a pot shared by the general-secretary,?

While moderates within the regime appear to be in the ascendancy,
hardliners implacably opposed to dealing with Suu Kyi could still block
progress towards a dialogue.

There is a growing belief among some of the NLD?s staunchest supporters
that Suu Kyi herself now needs to adopt a more conciliatory stance to
encourage the generals from their bunker. ?She is also going to have to
start showing some flexibility,? a Western diplomat said.

?She keeps pushing without giving anything and they?ll stop being pushed
in the end if they don?t feel she is giving something as well.?

Tin Oo insists the NLD is ready to compromise and that it can allay the
fears of many within the SLORC that a deal allowing the party back to
power would open the way to reprisals against senior members of the
regime. ?We are ready to talk. Aung San Suu Kyi has always insisted that
there can be real compromise. We can give and take, but the most
important thing is that we talk and that those talks include Suu Kyi,?
he said.

The 72-year-old former general, himself imprisoned for several years for
his defence of democracy, remains quietly confident that the
dictatorship can be ended without further bloodshed. ?We have struggled
for 50 years by force of arms to try to solve the problems of our
country and that approach has failed,? he said. ?Now is the time for
peace and reconciliation. The people are fed up and determined to have
their rights and freedoms restored.?