Defy U.S. Demands for Release of Activist
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.