Myanmar's junta-led government announces plan to lift martial-law decrees

September 27, 1992|By New York Times News Service

BANGKOK, Thailand -- The government of Myanmar, formerly Burma, announced yesterday that it would lift the last of the martial-law decrees it imposed in 1989 to crush a nascent democracy movement.

Diplomats described the action as primarily cosmetic and unlikely to satisfy critics of the government, although they acknowledged that it could result in a small improvement in the human rights situation in Myanmar.

The move, which was announced on state radio, is the most recent in a series of changes that are apparently part of a strategy pursued by the military government to end its status as an international pariah.

Since last spring, the government has released hundreds of political prisoners and allowed family visits to the nation's most famous dissident, Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who has been under house arrest since July 1989.

Even with the announcement yesterday, there is no doubt among diplomats that the military intends to continue holding power in Myanmar for years to come.

Still, the state radio said that yesterday's decree would end the judicial powers of military commanders, and that civilians would no longer be tried by military tribunals, known in Myanmar for dispensing quick justice.

"It may be a cosmetic change, but it's useful cosmetics," an Asian diplomat said of the announcement. "For a civilian accused of a crime, it's almost certainly better to have at least the facade of a civilian trial. The civilian system has at least a little due process built into it."

In September 1988, soldiers killed hundreds of democracy demonstrators on the streets of Yangon, the Myanmar capital formerly named Rangoon.

That same month a military administration was established under a junta calling itself the State Law and Order Restoration Council.

The junta lifted martial law in some areas of Myanmar before yesterday's announcement.

Under the new decree, diplomats said, martial law will now be ended in the military districts that include Yangon and Mandalay, Myanmar's second-largest city. The two cities had been strongholds of the democracy movement, which has been all but silenced in the past four years.

Last April, the government began releasing political prisoners, including associates and friends of Ms. Suu Kyi, and since then more than 500 people have gone free, including U Nu, Myanmar's last democratically elected prime minister.

Universities, closed for most of the last four years, are being reopened this fall.

Although diplomats and human rights advocates welcome recent moves, they say there is no evidence to suggest that the military intends to live up to its promise to return the government to civilian control.

In a report this month on Myanmar, Asia Watch, the New York-based human rights organization, said it found "no reason to believe that the human rights situation has fundamentally changed."

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