Written by U Ne Oo on 2002-06-06

(my article in the Adelaide Voices)

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On 6th May, Burma's charismatic opposition leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, was released by her captors. Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her non-violent resistance to the military oppression, her undisputed commitment to the cause of democracy for Burma has won the respect of many. She is known as "Daw Suu" to the Burmese democracy supporters who gathered in crowds at her release.

The United Nations Secretary General has welcomed Daw Suu's release and expressed the hope that her release would boost national reconciliation in Burma. There is also a sense of relief by other governments internationally who had earlier been considering tightening economic sanctions on Burma.

Daw Suu, now 56, has taken a torturous path of political activism since her return to Burma in 1988 to care for her ailing mother. She has been under house arrest for most the time since her return and was denied contact with her British husband who died of cancer in 1999.

With the hope of lifting economic sanctions, the junta released her in 1995 for a brief period. The latest house arrest was made in September 2000 under the pretext of the junta holding "secret talks" with her. In contrast to the jubilation and sense of triumph on Daw Suu's 1995 release, her supporters both at home and abroad are cautiously optimistic about her latest release.

There has been significant deterioration of humanitarian and economic conditions over the last few years. Many international investors have pulled out of Burma at the request of democracy supporters. Analysts point out that the declining economic fortune of the junta and the concerns raised by neighbouring Asian governments are the reasons for Daw Suu's release.

The persistent effort by the United Nations Secretary-General, whose envoy has taken crucial mediation role in the "secret talks" may also be an important factor in her release. The release was timely as it put back on track the UN mediation process after it had begun to loose the confidence of international observers who were threatening further sanctions.

Observers speculate that Daw Suu's release may be the result of a deal, or more likely the military's expectation, that she and the opposition party will participate in humanitarian activities. There has been an urgency to tackle illicit drug production and the spread of HIV/AIDS within the Burmese population. In July 2000 the UNAIDS program estimated more than 500,000 people in Burma may have been infected with HIV. This translates to one in every 50 adults in the population.

Recently, the United States Congress has been discussing ways to tackle HIV/AIDS through independent NGOs and UN Agencies. Australia has had an ongoing HIV/AIDS education program in Burma since 1997. Concurrent with these humanitarian initiatives, the International Labor Organisation will set up a (rather limited) monitoring program to address the forced labour problem in Burma.

There is an indication that the junta has slowly come to its sense and realised that it cannot run the country without the participation of the opposition party and the Burmese public.

Since Daw Suu's release, the National League for Democracy (NLD) has been focusing o energising the party as well as the release of 1,500 political prisoners, including 17 elected representatives. The junta has been urged to release these prisoners and to start dialogue in a formal way.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, after her release, said that the confidence-building phase with the military is now over and it is time to progress into meaningful political negotiations. The push for a broader dialogue, which includes ethnic minority groups, may be the future priority for the NLD and its supporters.

Undoubtedly, as of 6th May 2002 the NLD, the winner of the 1990 general election, has emerged as a more disciplined political party. Daw Suu, soon after her release, said that this could be a new dawn for Burma. Let us hope that this becomes a reality and may we not fail in assisting the democracy forces in Burma.--Dr U Ne Oo.

New Dawn for Burma?