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Suu Kyi's Choice: act quickly or fa

Subject: Suu Kyi's Choice: act quickly or fade away

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By the International Institute for Strategic Studies 
The Straits Times (Reprinted in The Japan Times,
September 15, 1995)

LONDON - Despite the considerable international attention
that surrounded the release of opposition leader Aung San
Suu Kyi there are few signs of substantial change in the
political life of Myanmar.

On the contrary, her release is not a sign of weakness on the
part of the State Law and Order Restoration Council, which
assumed power in 1988, but of the growing self-confidence
of Myanmar's military leaders who still determine the
political agenda and are preparing for life after SLORC.

The first question concerning Suu Kyi's future has been
answered quickly.  Unlike fellow Nobel laureate Nelson
Mandela, she has not been freed to take part in a national

Despite growing international support, she has been
released as an ordinary citizen, subject to the same
draconian security laws as everyone else.

SLORC officials depict her as an irrelevant voice in
domestic politics, sway to Western allegiances (she has a
British husband).  In such a hostile environment, her future
rearrest cannot be precluded.

In response, she has attempted to maintain a conciliatory
pose.  She has concentrated on reviving her near moribund
party, the National League for Democracy, which won a
landslide victory in the 1980 election.

Significantly, she has spent much time with retired military
supporters, and has adopted an appeasing stance toward the
army, which her late father founded.

Her strategy is clearly to pave the way for talks with the
two key SLORC figures, Chairman Gen.  Than Shwe, and
military intelligence chief Lt.  Gen. Khin Nyunt, who both
met her last year.

The council, however, has shown little interest in
responding.  Eventual talks cannot be ruled out as national
reconciliation will one day be essential.  But unless such
talks occur soon, a confrontation is widely predicted.

Many supporters believe Suu Kyi must make her mark
quickly to prevent further erosion of the democracy
movement.  In the coming months, there will be two main
points of contention.     * The first concerns international investment in Myanmar. 
Suu Kyi's assertion that any international investment is
premature without democratic reform has been met with
stinging criticism in the state-controlled press.

SLORC is staking its long-term survival on economic
progress, and should it feel that her words are being heeded,
hardliners will undoubtedly respond.

Its open-door policy is slowly attracting international
investment to the country, especially in tourism and natural
gas.  However, Myanmar is still considered a financial risk
and, after years of conflict and misrule, most sectors of the
economy are in a parlous state.  

* The second point concerns SLORC's reform process
which, after much delay, is now reaching a critical state.

During Suu Kyi's detention, SLORC overruled the 1990
election result and inaugurated its own National Convention
to draw up the new constitution.

Most elected parties have been barred, but several NLD
members, on Suu Kyi's instructions, have continued to

Despite continuing arrests, this has allowed SLORC to
present the convention as a forum for democratic debate.

It has also accelerated an increasingly successful cease-fire
policy in ethnic-minority regions.  By this June, it had
agreed to military cease fires with the 16 key ethnic
insurgent groups, bringing the first peace in four decades to
several borderland war zones.  A number of these groups
have been attending the convention.

Thus, the next scheduled meeting in October will bring
numerous issues to a head.

With the constitution reportedly near completion, SLORC
will force both Suu Kyi and the ethnic opposition to deal
with them or risk being marginalized.

Suu Kyi's long-term potential as a unifying symbol for
democratic change can never be discounted.

However, as evidenced by her release, SLORC leaders are
now confident in their ability to control the situation.

Internally, SLORC is aiming for the Indonesian model.  The
armed forces must have the "leading role" in politics,
Myanmar's future president must have military experience ,
and 25 percent of seats in Parliament must be reserved for
military candidates.

Equally striking after the poor showing of its National Unity
Party in 1990, SLORC has formed the mass movement
Union Solidarity and Defense Association in likely imitation
of Indonesia's ruling Golkar party.

Meanwhile, in Myanmar's restive ethnic-minority states,
SLORC is planning to reform local government while
retaining central military rule.

New administrative regions will be created in which leaders
who have signed cease-fires have been promised important

Clearly, SLORC hopes to dissipate ethnic opposition
through cease-fires, but how long these groups will be
allowed to retain their arms is unclear.

Nevertheless, its calculation that many insurgent
commanders in the field put local interests before broader
national concerns has been proved correct.  The main armed
opposition fronts, the National Democratic Front and
Democratic Alliance of Burma, have virtually disintegrated.

This does not mean that Myanmar's long-running ethnic
problems are by any means solved.  Fighting still continues
against the Mong Tai Army of the opium king, Khun Sa. 
Nevertheless, after so many years of conflict, veteran ethnic
leaders want to be on the inside of the process in such a
pivotal era. For this reason, cease-fires are expected to en-

Also delighted by the cease-fire movement and Suu Kyi's
release are Myanmar's Southeast Asian neighbors, who
share many concerns over refugees, narcotics and AIDS.  In
the xenophobic world of Myanmar politics, internal security
is always paramount.

Many regional governments claim Suu Kyi's release as the
result of their "constructive engagement" with SLORC, in
sharp contrast to the West's isolation tactics.

The greatest public support for SLORC has come from the
Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which invited the
regime to attend (as observer) its last two annual meetings
in Bangkok and Brunei.

There have been several diplomatic visits, and with the
signing of ASEAN's Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in
July, Myanmar's future membership is virtually assured.

If Myanmar is ineluctably moving into the Southeast Asia
orbit, China remains the most powerful presence on Myan-
mar's borders.  The country's entry into ASEAN, however,
will not worry China, whose policy toward Myanmar has
undergone a major shift.

Following its 1989 cutoff in support to the now-defunct
Communist Party of Burma, Chinese trade has come to pre-
dominate across the northeast.  China is today Myanmar's
largest arms supplier and trading partner, and although
large-scale Chinese immigration is fueling resentment,
diplomatic relations were cemented publicly by Chinese
Prime Minister Li Peng's 1994 visit to Rangoon.

Significantly, however, the greatest international influence
on Suu Kyi's release was probably neither ASEAN nor
China but Japan, which has made her freedom the main
precondition for resuming aid.

SLORC first announced the news to the Japanese Embassy
and, in response, ministers in Tokyo have already intimated
that full development assistance will be restored shortly.
By contrast, the release of Suu Kyi has left Western
governments increasingly wrong-footed.  Western oil
companies are the largest sectoral investors in Myanmar,
but concern over continuing human-rights abuses is still

While international attention has focused on Aung San Suu
Kyi, Myanmar's military strongmen have once again ensured
that they have the dominant say and Western governments
will have to adjust their policies to this reality.

(The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) is a
London-based think-tank.  This article is one of a series of
commentaries on strategic global issues examined every
month by the institute.)