Asean undermines opposition to Burma junta

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The Independent Online
BURMA'S military rulers, whose detention of the country's leading dissident goes into its sixth year today, are about to enjoy an important token of support from neighbouring governments.

On Friday, while Aung San Suu Kyi remains confined to her home in Rangoon, the Burmese Foreign Minister, Ohn Gyaw, will be in Bangkok for a meeting of his counterparts from the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean). It is the first time Burma has been invited to attend, and has undermined the stand of Western governments against the military junta in Rangoon, known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (Slorc). 'It is difficult for us to tell our diplomats to have nothing to do with the Slorc when they are getting this kind of recognition from Asean,' complained a European official.

Ms Suu Kyi, 49, the daughter of Burma's independence hero Aung San, was detained on 20 July 1989. The following year her party, the National League for Democracy, won a landslide victory in general elections, but the military refused to recognise the result. Most of the party's MPs are in detention or exiled. The Slorc would like Ms Suu Kyi to leave the country as well, but she has refused. Apart from her husband, Oxford don Michael Aris, and their two sons, the only outsider to have seen her is a US Congressman, Bill Richardson, who was allowed to visit her in February with an American journalist and a UN official.

Any hope that the junta might be contemplating the release of Ms Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, has since faded, however. Recent conciliatory language from Khin Nyunt, the most powerful figure in the Slorc, is thought to be aimed mainly at outside bodies such as Asean, enabling them to deflect criticism from human rights groups and the West for dealing with the regime.

General Khin Nyunt told the New York Times that Ms Suu Kyi was 'not an enemy'. The junta was willing to 'work hand in hand with politicians who have opposed us in the past'. The Slorc strongman said he would accept an invitation to talk with Ms Suu Kyi, but did not elaborate. Critics said his words were less conciliatory than they seemed: Ms Suu Kyi, who refuses to allow the junta even to pay for her food, is unlikely to request talks with someone who describes her patronisingly as a 'younger sister', as the general did in the interview.

The Slorc finds the dissident's defiance all the more frustrating because it is achieving acceptance on several other fronts. Most of the country's numerous ethnic insurgencies have been brought under control by a combination of bribery and outside pressure - from China and increasingly from Thailand, whose generals have been induced to withdraw support for the Karen rebels by the award of lucrative timber concessions. Burma's retreat from socialism has also led to increasing interest from businessmen, and the invitation to Bangkok this week may presage an application by Burma for full Asean membership.

Ms Suu Kyi remains such an irritant, however, that the junta has consistently bent the rules to keep her locked away.

Letter, page 13