Pascal Khoo-Thwe: Don't be fooled: Burma's generals cannot be trusted

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The release of Aung San Suu Kyi earlier this week from house arrest by the military rulers of Burma has been hailed as a new dawn. That could be true if all parties respond to the new atmosphere. But it would be premature to trust the generals to keep their promises that Suu Kyi will be not be restricted in her activities, and that there will be political dialogues: in the past they have never failed to break just about every promise they have given.

They have released her because of pressures brought against them, partly through sanctions, by the international community. The economy is in a state of collapse, and the regime needs all the foreign income it can get. Yet foreign pressure is not the whole answer. Careful thought should be given to the rebuilding of the country so there is no return to the worst days paranoia, hatred and mistrust.

Since gaining independence from Britain in 1948, Burma has never been at peace with itself. The burden of running a war-ravaged country suffering intractable economic, ethnic and political problems proved impossible for the inexperienced and idealistic politicians of the day. Eventually, the army, led by General Ne Win, took power in a coup in 1962 with the excuse that they were saving the country from disintegration.

My tribe, the Kayan Padaung, who are famous for the practice of placing brass rings around the necks of our women, were on the receiving end of repeated military brutalities. Through the 1960s many of us were forced to flee our homes in south-eastern Burma, and many still live in refugee camps in Thailand. I was born in 1967 into a twilight zone where old tribal practices continued but modern life was being ruthlessly imposed upon us.

During my life I have seen my country led down a path of spiralling self-destruction exacerbated by civil war and mismanagement of the economy by a one-party system. Burma, having been the richest country in South-east Asia before the Second World War, had by 1988 become one of the poorest nations and biggest producers of heroin.

In 1988, the country rose in revolt, and thousands of civilians, students and even monks were gunned down by military police and soldiers on the streets even though they were taking part in peaceful protests. I was part of those protests and subsequently felt I had to join the rebels in resistance to the military regime.

In the subsequent election of 1990, the National League for Democracy led by Suu Kyi won a landslide victory while she was still under house arrest. But the military authority refused to hand over power. Suu Kyi was released briefly and put under house arrest again. With the savage repression it seemed that hope had been extinguished. Now she is released for the second time. For millions of ordinary Burmese, for whom the privations of daily life take precedent over politics, Suu Kyi, remains almost the only hope of a better future.

If Burma is to become a stable nation again, its rulers, whoever they maybe, have to sort out the huge problems that have been built up under the dictatorship: the collapsing economy and system of education, health, narcotics, and the grievances of the ethnic minorities who make up nearly 40 per cent of Burma's population. These problems are all interconnected and have to be dealt with together: they all spring from the damage done to civil society and national morale over 40 years of misrule.

First, the economy must be revived, starting with the rebuilding of long-neglected telecommunications, roads and rails. There must be reforms on constitutional, legal and bureaucratic issues to make the new system more transparent and accountable.

Aung San Suu Kyi acknowledges the ethnic complexities of the country, and she is the only politician who can do a deal with the minority peoples so that they would genuinely accept being part of the Union of Burma.

There is little doubt that the ethnic leaders and the people of Burma are tired of conflicts and civil wars. Even soldiers are reluctant to fight their fellow countrymen in the name of law and order. If the generals negotiate in good faith it is possible that problems going back to 1948 can be solved. Dialogue should be commenced as soon as possible, giving the ethnic people the responsibility for their own affairs. Such is the exhaustion that a genuinely federal system might now be possible for the first time.

Narcotics present a much more difficult problem. They are produced in massive quantities by some ethnic groups who have signed ceasefire agreements with the ruling junta, and some of the generals are implicated in trafficking. The army must be reformed so that the soldiers work for the people, not for their generals only. Foreign help is also necessary to help curb the huge Aids epidemic that is sweeping the country.

It is not clear that the generals have any intention of surrendering power. Aung San Suu Kyi's release hints that there is a possibility of change. Outside pressure on the regime should not let up – otherwise her release will turn out to have been just a gesture to buy time. Things can easily go wrong again, and the Tamadaw (army) will have another chance to drag the country back to a hideous Year Zero.

The writer is the author of'From the Land of Green Ghosts' (HarperCollins)