Burmese military hints at freeing peace prize winner

AUNG SAN SUU KYI, the Nobel Prize winner detained by the Burmese military government since July 1989, may be freed in July, a senior military leader has indicated. In an interview in Rangoon with Japanese journalists, Lieutenant- General Khin Nyunt, the influential first secretary of the military regime, said the government would not seek to change the law to prolong Ms Suu Kyi's arrest beyond her current sentence of five years.

Asked whether this meant that Ms Suu Kyi, 48, would definitely be released in July, General Khin Nyunt said: 'I cannot answer the question more precisely, because my answer would be misleading, but we will deal with it by the existing law without making another law.'

For the junta, which is trying to shed its international-pariah status, releasing Ms Suu Kyi would be a calculated gamble. It would improve the country's international image and facilitate much-needed economic aid and World Bank lending. But it would also risk re-igniting the anti-military democratic agitation that led to the bloody coup of 1988 and Ms Suu Kyi's arrest in the first place. 'It is a very difficult question, and is exercising a lot of thought in the government,' said a diplomat in Rangoon. 'But if Aung San Suu Kyi is released, it would be hard for any government to stop resuming aid. They may be thinking it is a risk worth taking.'

Ms Suu Kyi, who is married to a British academic and has two children living in Oxford, became the leader of a nation-wide pro-democracy movement which swept through Burma in 1988. But after the military shot dead hundreds of protesters and began to reassert its control over the country, Ms Suu Kyi was put under house arrest. She lives in her house in central Rangoon and is denied any contact with the outside world apart from infrequent visits by family members.

But, isolated and silenced as she is, she remains the military regime's greatest liability. She was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 1991, and most governments have indicated they will not consider economic aid to Rangoon until she is released.

It is significant that General Khin Nyunt, the former intelligence chief who is regarded as one of the country's most powerful military leaders, would refer to Ms Suu Kyi's possible release in an interview with Japanese journalists. Rangoon is desperate for economic assistance from Tokyo, which has continued to provide aid pledged before the 1988 coup, but has not offered any substantial new aid packages. And Japanese companies, restrained by their government, are watching impatiently as rivals from Korea and Taiwan gain a head start in developing their business in the resource-rich country.

The Burmese government has been making concerted attempts to improve its image recently, including opening peace talks with a number of ethnic-minority insurgents and developing closer relations with its neighbours in South-east Asia. Even tourists are now being given 28-day visas, a big change from the old one-week permits. 'But they know that releasing Aung San Suu Kyi is the big one,' the diplomat said.