Suu Kyi proclaims `new dawn' in Myanmar

Freed after long arrest, pro-democracy leader plans talks on change

May 07, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BANGKOK, Thailand - Radiating joy and strength, the woman known throughout Myanmar as "The Lady" stood before a cheering crowd yesterday for the first time in years and proclaimed, "It's a new dawn for the country."

Freed yesterday morning after 19 months of house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the pro-democracy movement, said it was time to move forward from a period of fence-mending to the beginnings of substantive change in the former Burma.

After a year and a half of what were called confidence-building talks with the military leadership, "the next step is discussions about policy," Suu Kyi said.

She offered no specifics, but said her task now is to do "everything I can to make sure that democracy comes to Burma."

That will likely mean slow and careful moves rather than the confrontations that have marked her relations with the country's military junta since it nullified a parliamentary election in 1990 in which her party, the National League for Democracy, won 82 percent of the seats.

In a signal of an emerging new relationship, the government spokesman, Col. Hla Min, said there would be no restrictions on her movements and activities, "because we are confident that we can trust each other."

It appeared from the events and statements made yesterday that Myanmar was moving into a tentative new phase of its history after more than a decade of political and economic paralysis that followed the 1990 election.

"Basically, that's history," said David Steinberg, a professor at Georgetown University who is a leading expert on Myanmar. "It was unfortunate, but in the 12 years since that time they've had a political stalemate. And that stalemate seems now to be in the process of breaking, and that's progress."

That also seemed to be the assessment of the United States, which tends to be sensitive to the views of Suu Kyi. The latest State Department report on Myanmar, issued in February, dropped its customary reference to the nullified election and spoke instead of a process of democratization and improvement of human rights.

U.S. officials welcomed Suu Kyi's release, but said they believe it is premature to talk about lifting the economic and other sanctions in place against the country's government.

"It's a very important first step toward real political dialogue," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher. "We hope that the regime is serious about moving ahead with political reform and national reconciliation."

Boucher said the United States will be watching closely to see whether Suu Kyi gets the freedom of movement and association that the country's military rulers have promised.

In remarks yesterday, Suu Kyi said, "We look forward to moving on."

Diplomats and other analysts said they did not expect any high-profile moves in the near future. Both sides will tread carefully as they feel their way to a new accommodation.

An early gauge of the new climate will be whether the government keeps its promise to free large numbers of political prisoners, which human rights groups estimate at up to 1,500. Dozens of members of Suu Kyi's party who were elected to Parliament remain in prison.

"I and my party have been disappointed by the slow rate of the release of political prisoners," she said. "Their release is not only important in humanitarian terms but also political terms."

Other major steps remain to be taken. One of the most difficult, perhaps, would be opening the government-controlled news media to opposing viewpoints.

Another task on the agenda would be to convene a national convention to draw up a new constitution. The convention, the next formal step in creating a new government, has been stalled for the past decade, since Suu Kyi's supporters withdrew in protest against its control by the military.

The changes now under way appear to have been forced on the junta by a combination of factors, including tough economic sanctions, international isolation, pressure by Malaysia and other members of the Southeast Asian regional grouping, and the unflagging popularity of Suu Kyi despite government efforts to marginalize her.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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