Small Step Forward for Burma

February 25, 1994

Burma (now officially called Myanmar) is a backward, isolated, impoverished country missing the economic prosperity of its neighbors because its military junta keeps it that way.

The State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) knows it is the problem -- not the slender and eloquent woman who has been kept under house arrest four-and-a-half years. Yet the SLORC's sensitivity to its isolation and its desire for a better reputation led it to lift the curtain just enough to allow her first non-family, non-SLORC visitors: Rep. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., accompanied by a U.N. official and a newspaper reporter.

What they learned is that Aung San Suu Kyi is keeping the faith. It is the faith of her father, Aung San, who led the country to independence and sought democracy; the faith that made her on a 1988 family visit the popular leader of dissidence to dictatorship, that caused her house arrest the next year and made her political party the landslide winner of a parliamentary election in 1990; the faith that brought the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.

Myanmar must want aid resumed by the United States, or it would not have allowed Representative Richardson to see Mrs. Suu Kyi two days running, and then see the intelligence chief, Lieut. Gen. Khin Nyunt, the strong man of SLORC.

There is no reason for President Clinton to improve frigid relations yet, however. The opposition National League for Democracy would do even better today than it did in the suppressed 1989 election. It is Mrs. Kuu Kyi who should be running the country as a democratically elected prime minister and General Khin Nyunt who should be locked up.

The message that emerges from this token liberalization is that more liberalization is needed. For starters, Aung San Suu Kyi should be given freedom of the country -- and not just the right to exile. Then she and Khin Nyunt should negotiate an orderly transition to democratic rule.

And then Myanmar would return to the community of nations and start to feel the economic vitality that would accompany the liberation of the creative energies of its people.

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