Sat, 05 Jul 2003

Suu Kyi must be released for democracy to be restored in Myanmar

Jose Ramos-Horta Inter Press Service Dili, East Timor

Current events in Myanmar are deeply disturbing. A very revered monk, Sayadaw U Satetara, a high-ranking member of the holy Sangha and strong supporter of imprisoned Nobel Peace Laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, passed away last week from what many suspect were not natural causes.

In the meantime, Suu Kyi, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her campaign to restore democracy and civil liberties in Myanmar by peaceful means, remains incarcerated and held incommunicado.

The recent attacks on Suu Kyi, leader of the country's opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), and her supporters were orchestrated by hard-liners in Myanmar's military regime who fear her enduring popularity and the national reconciliation process supported by other, more tolerant, members of the ruling junta.

Appeals for Suu Kyi's release from Rangoon's friends and Myanmar's neighbors seem to have fallen on deaf ears. This certainly does not augur well for the country, and Myanmar could pay a high price internationally for the hard-liners' intransigence.

Myanmar's most important foreign donor, Japan, until recently excessively cautious in its approach to human rights issues in the region, has decided to stop almost all its support for the country.

Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), must also keep up the pressure on the Burmese generals.

The foreign ministers of ASEAN -- of which Myanmar is a member -- recently broke a taboo against interfering in what have traditionally been regarded as the internal affairs of a member state.

Embarrassed that the international reputation of ASEAN was suffering because of the gross and systematic human rights violations in Myanmar, the ministers demanded at their recent annual meeting in Phnom Penh that Suu Kyi be freed immediately.

China, as a regional power, too, must take its cue from Japan and act decisively in pressuring the Burmese junta to release Suu Kyi. While understandably cautious in its conduct of foreign relations and not wanting to be misconstrued as a regional bully, China cannot sidestep its responsibility by avoiding a central role in the resolution of conflicts on its doorstep.

There is also a role for India. As Asia's oldest and the world's first largest democracy, India is in a position to prod the Burmese generals to loosen their grip on the nation. New Delhi has had diplomatic experience in dealing with Rangoon within the ambit of the Non-Aligned Movement. At this crucial moment, India must not eschew its own responsibilities.

As regional powers, China, Japan and India, working closely with Indonesia in its current position as chair of ASEAN, must find a solution to this impasse. Failure to do so will weaken ASEAN and undermine its international influence.

In the 1970s, we witnessed regional silence and complicity surrounding the Cambodian tragedy. It will be tragic if the same attitude is adopted with regard to Myanmar.

But the winds of change are blowing through the region, and there are encouraging signs that ASEAN is becoming more prepared to address human rights abuses in its own backyard.

China, too, has opened up even if it continues to be a one- party state. Only two countries, Myanmar and North Korea, remain frozen in time.

There is, however, hope for Myanmar.

Myanmar's military regime can learn from the positive lessons of its neighbors, namely Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Cambodia. These might not be perfect democracies, but they are relatively open and economically successful.

In working towards a peaceful and stable political transition, the democracy movement in Myanmar as well as the international community must also consider safeguards and incentives for those in power to allow the evolution to proceed. The military should be offered assurances that there will be no vendetta against it once democracy is restored in Myanmar.

Meanwhile, the United States and the European Union should consider responding to each meaningful step taken by the military government with measures such as a gradual easing of travel restrictions for regime members and providing humanitarian aid through non-government organizations.

There must also be a role for the United Nations in Myanmar. The UN, in close consultation with ASEAN leaders, must be involved in facilitating and supervising the steps for free elections within three years.

With political reform under way, the World Bank and other institutions, such as the United Nations Development Program, should step in to help reform Myanmar's institutions and economy.

But for all this to happen the military must first release Suu Kyi and her supporters, reopen the offices of the National League for Democracy, and accept a clear timetable for restoring democracy in Myanmar.

The writer, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996, is East Timor's minister for foreign affairs.