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A Year After Vowing Change, Burmese Junta Hardens Line
By SETH MYDANS
The New York Times, Bangkok, May 30, 2003
"One year ago this month, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi stood before a hot and excited crowd in Myanmar and declared, 'It's a new dawn for the country.' She had just been freed from 19 months of house arrest by a ruling military junta promising cooperation, mutual respect and a new dialogue toward a political accommodation with the democratic opposition she headed. 'The next step is discussions about policy,' she said. A government spokesman said there would be no restrictions on her movements 'because we are confident we can trust each other,' and he announced that the country's political prisoners would be freed. Almost none of these promises have been kept."
" 'I don't think there's been any progress so far,' said David I. Steinberg, a professor at Georgetown University who is a leading expert on Myanmar, formerly called Burma. 'It's been very depressing.' The anniversary of that hopeful moment has been marked by new tensions between the government and the opposition and by some of the most pessimistic remarks Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi has made in years. 'We are concerned with the lack of progress between the authorities and ourselves,' she said shortly before the May 6 anniversary of her release. 'We have been forced to question the sincerity of the S.P.D.C. I do not think there had been any progress. In fact, I would have thought that there had been some kind of regression.' "
"The S.P.D.C. is the military junta that took power after crushing a widespread popular uprising in 1988, and has since named itself the State Peace and Development Council. It clung to power after her party, the National League for Democracy, won more than 80 percent of the seats in a parliamentary election in 1990, and it has held her under house arrest, off and on, for much of the time since then. 'The election results cannot be cast aside at will,' Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi said in a statement on Tuesday, which was the anniversary of that election. 'We, the National League for Democracy, stand firm for implementation of the results of the 1990 election.' That position represented a hardening of the openly flexible position she had taken in the recent past, Mr. Steinberg said."
"Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi's release last May was one of the most hopeful moments for the democratic opposition since the election, and the shrinking of those hopes over the past year has left it uncertain about the future. 'Are they truly interested in a settlement with us?' Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi asked in Apr. The promised political dialogue has failed to materialize, and a spokesman for her party, U. Lwin, told reporters this week in Yangon, Myanmar's capital, that the government had not even discussed the issue for the past seven months. A leading member of the junta told the Thai foreign minister earlier this month that a dialogue would begin soon. That statement was met with widespread skepticism that the talks would be conducted in good faith, or that they would even actually begin."
"Though the government says more than 500 political prisoners have been freed, the United States State Department estimates that 1,300 are still being held. Many of these, however, are members or supporters of armed ethnic groups rather than members of the political opposition. Since Jan. the government has announced only 75 releases, and in recent months it has made a number of new arrests. Since Dec. it has also backtracked on the one major promise it had kept: permitting Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi's freedom to travel from Yangon to meet supporters and to reopen party offices that had been forced to close. According to party members in Yangon, her convoys of cars and motorcycles have been obstructed, supporters have been intimidated, and public meetings have been disrupted by heckling and harassment."
"She is now on a monthlong trip to northeastern Myanmar, her seventh trip in the past year, and the party spokesman, Mr. Lwin, said in statements to reporters in Yangon that she had been faced with the most hostile and violent disruptions so far. He said organized crowds had surrounded her and her supporters. Some people brandished sticks and machetes. In one case, a brick landed on her car. In another, punches were thrown. He blamed these actions on a government-organized group called the Union Solidarity Development Association, some of whose members are sometimes used to harass opponents."
"On Tuesday, the government turned the tables and accused Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi's supporters of assaulting people who were peacefully protesting against her. 'Local authorities have urged the N.L.D. to be broad-minded and understand that there are those who support the N.L.D. and those who do not support them,' it said in a statement. Razali Ismail, a special envoy of the United Nations secretary general, Kofi Annan, who brokered the agreement for Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi's release, has tried to shepherd the start of political discussions."