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Spin Control for Dictators

Spin Control for Dictators

Saturday, November 22, 1997; Page A18
The Washington Post 
DICTATORSHIPS WITH image problems -- and what other kind is there these
days? -- generally have two choices. They can permit genuine reform and
risk losing their grip on power, or they can make cosmetic changes and
hope to get credit for them overseas. All things being equal, tyrants
tend to find the second alternative more appealing. Only internal and
international pressure can force them toward the first.

Take Burma, also known as Myanmar, where as unsavory a regime as you can
find holds sway. Until this week, its military junta was known by the
appropriately repellent acronym SLORC, for State Law and Order
Restoration Council. Now the 21-member SLORC has been replaced by a
19-member State Peace and Development Council; no doubt the Burmese
generals paid some image-shop handsomely for this brilliant move. But
while some SLORC generals have been replaced, the same four hard-liners
remain atop the government, and there's no apparent change in policy.
Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace laureate and (according to a nullified
1990 election) rightful leader of Burma, remains under virtual house
arrest, and many of her supporters are still in jail.

The Burmese generals are seeking to spruce up their reputation because
international sanctions against them are beginning to bite; the economy
in this nation of 45 million people is deteriorating. Now potential
investors should maintain the pressure until the junta changes in more
than name only. An appropriate first step would be to begin a dialogue
with Aung San Suu Kyi.

Cambodian dictator Hun Sen, who took over in a coup last July, offers a
second case. Hun Sen has promised to hold elections next May: The
question is whether he will hold a sham poll or truly allow people to
express their will. Again, international pressure is key; Cambodia
depends on outsiders for half of its budget. The United States, Japan,
Cambodia's neighbors in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and
others are pushing for the safe return of opposition politicians, for a
truly independent election commission and for other measures that could
ensure a free and fair election. Their pressure seems to be moving Hun
Sen and his regime slowly in the right direction, but nothing is sure
yet. When President Clinton, Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto
and other Asian leaders meet at a forthcoming Vancouver summit, they
should make clear to the dictators of both Burma and Cambodia that reform
isn't a matter of spin control. 

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company