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Burmese Defy U.S. Demands for Release of Activist

By Raymond Bonner

The New York Times
September 14, 2003

BANGKOK, Sept. 13 — It has been almost four months since the leading Burmese pro-democracy activist, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, was detained by Myanmar's military junta, and diplomats who follow developments in the country from here say it appears unlikely that she will be given her freedom any time soon.

Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi does not appear to be on a hunger strike, as American officials had said earlier this month, but her condition is still in question, diplomats said. No outsider except a representative of the International Red Cross has seen her in more than three months.

The most optimistic view of the situation, one Western ambassador said, is that in response to the international pressure, the junta would release Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi to house arrest. That could happen within the next couple of weeks, but even if that were to occur, he said, she would not be allowed to engage in political activity.

In interviews this week, diplomats from several countries also dismissed the junta's announcement two weeks ago of a so-called road map to democracy for Myanmar, formerly Burma. One diplomat noted that it is basically a rehash of promises made previously by the junta, which seized power after crushing a peaceful popular uprising in 1988.

The United States has taken the lead in demanding that the junta release Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi, with strong public statements and tough economic sanctions. The lack of any concrete results reveals the limits of United States influence there, American officials acknowledge.

China is the key to Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi's freedom, diplomats from several countries said, but it has shown no inclination to put pressure on the junta, a reliable ally. Gen. Khin Nyunt, who became prime minister of Myanmar last month in a government reshuffling, commended the Chinese leadership back in 1989 for the crackdown on the students at Tiananmen Square.

Chinese officials have said that Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi's detention is a domestic matter for the Burmese to sort out. Last month, China made a $200 million loan to the Myanmar junta to buy Chinese goods, including military equipment.

The United States would also like to see Thailand, Myanmar's neighbor, be more aggressive in pushing for Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi's release and for democracy there. But Thai generals and businessmen have carried on financially profitable dealings with the junta over the years, and the Thai government has been cautious in its public remarks.

"We've expressed concern that she be released as soon as possible," said Sihasak Phuangketkeow, spokesman for the Thai Foreign Ministry. "But we have to be realistic. We are neighbors. The United States is far away."

Mr. Sihasak said that Thailand had encouraged the junta to develop a road map to democracy, and that it should be seen as a positive step.

Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy, has been under detention in one form or another for the last 14 years. During her absence from the public view, her popularity grew rather than faded, contrary to the junta's hopes.

That became apparent after she was released from house arrest in early 2002, and was eventually allowed to travel outside the capital for political rallies. The outpouring of support surprised most foreign analysts, perhaps reflecting the popular resentment of military rule.

During a political tour in the northern part of the country in May, Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters were set upon by a gang wielding rocks, slingshots and nail-studded clubs.

The junta denied any connection to the mob and said that only a few people had been killed. American officials said that although the exact number was not known, close to 100 people had died, and that there was no way the mob could not have been controlled by the junta, in a country where the military controls everything.

"It was horrific," an American diplomat said of the attack, on May 30. Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi narrowly escaped death or serious injury, and the generals quickly imprisoned her, calling it "protective custody."

In response, the Bush administration supported and Congress passed economic sanctions that are the toughest imposed on a country since the penalties against Cuba, American diplomats said.

The sanctions freeze the Myanmar government's assets in the United States, deny visas to Burmese officials and ban imports of the country's goods.

It is too early to know what effect the sanctions will have, but it is the ban on imports that is likely to hurt most. Finished textile goods, made by poorly paid workers, are a major Burmese export to the United States.

The government has said that 300,000 women will lose their jobs in textile plants because of the sanctions. The number is probably closer to 100,000, foreign analysts say, and the junta has already reduced the country's economy to ruin.

It is not clear what caused the State Department to assert two weeks ago that Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi was on a hunger strike, a claim it had to retract in the face of the Red Cross statement. Some diplomats and analysts think it may have been a calculated ploy by the Bush administration to force the junta to give the Red Cross access to Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi, which had been denied.

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