Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi has been released from almost two years of house arrest in Myanmar. The military junta that rules the country has made an important concession to international opinion by deciding to release the democracy activist, but the government’s commitment to genuine reform remains unclear. The world should applaud the move, but pressure to honor the results of the 1990 election, won by Ms. Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, or NLD, but rejected by the military, must continue.
Myanmar, which when known as Burma was Southeast Asia’s richest country, has had an unhappy history. Gen. Ne Win seized power in 1962 and proceeded to bankrupt the country in his efforts to implement his own brand of socialism. He was overthrown by other generals in 1988. Confident that they enjoyed popular support, those officers held an election in 1990 which, to their shock, they lost to the NLD. They refused to accept the results, imprisoned Ms. Suu Kyi and other NLD supporters and have ruled the country ever since. The result has been corruption, a continuing slide in the national economy and international isolation.
The junta has tried to marginalize Ms. Suu Kyi, but her popularity — aided by her winning the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize — has only increased both at home and abroad. As international pressure mounted, the government tried in 1995 to score points by releasing her from house arrest, but her stubborn commitment to the cause of democracy in Myanmar forced the junta to clamp down again in September 2000. She was again placed under house arrest and her phone line was cut.
Since then, Myanmar’s international isolation has increased. Economic mismanagement and consumer boycotts have pushed the country into ever more dire straits. On the black market, the country’s currency has fallen to rates of more than 1,000 to the dollar, while the official rate is 6.9 to the greenback. Annual inflation is more than 50 percent, and the government reportedly has foreign exchange reserves of about $250 million, less than six weeks’ worth of imports.
The country’s infrastructure is rotting, there are daily power outages, and even the government has acknowledged that Myanmar has a drug problem. In addition to being one of the world’s leading suppliers of opium, Myanmar is suffering an AIDS epidemic. It is estimated that the disease has infected more than 700,000 people, in a population of just under 50 million people. The junta’s options are dwindling. There have been rumors of secret talks between the government and the NLD for some time, and a United Nations special envoy has been trying to facilitate a deal between the two. Those efforts paid off with the release of Ms. Suu Kyi.
Rumors of a split within the government leadership also played a role. Mr. Ne Win and several relatives were arrested recently and charged with plotting a coup. It is unlikely that any such plan was in the works. It is more probable that there was a falling out among the leadership over the pace and scope of reform and policy toward the NLD. The losers were arrested and will be used as scapegoats for the government’s previous hard line. While that is convenient, it does not suggest that the commitment to positive change is genuine. The government’s intentions will become evident in the next few weeks.
Ms. Suu Kyi says she has been given an unconditional release; her freedom to campaign across the country will be a reliable indicator of the junta’s intent. Another sign will be the treatment of other political prisoners.
The NLD says that 239 of its members have been released from prison and that about 10 percent of its branch offices have been allowed to reopen in the capital, along with others elsewhere in the country. Nevertheless, the party claims that 600 of its members, along with several other political prisoners, are still locked up. The NLD has made the release of all political prisoners a precondition for the next phase of talks.
National reconciliation is the immediate goal in Myanmar. It will take years before the country embraces full democracy, which means patience will be a virtue. It also means that there is room for a division of labor when dealing with Myanmar. Southeast Asian governments have long favored engagement over isolation, while many developed countries, in particular the United States and the European Union, have taken a harder line. Japan has been in the middle.
A nuanced strategy that offers the junta real incentives for engagement with democratic forces but holds back substantive rewards until action is taken could encourage reformers within Myanmar. It is a difficult balancing act, one that requires finesse and strength. It has already paid dividends with the release of Ms. Suu Kyi. But this week’s events mark the beginning of a process, not the end.
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