On Her Own

Inside a tiny house in the Burmese capital of Rangoon sits a frail woman who may hold the future of the troubled nation in her delicate hands. But while the world watches her struggle, little help reaches Aung San Suu Kyi

By Ron Gluckman/Rangoon

AUNG SAN SUU KYI DESCRIBES HER FIGHT to bring democracy to Myanmar as a battle of might versus right. But whether she, the generals who run the country, and the international chorus of observers are involved in a morality tale or just a political drama, everyone is playing their part with conviction.

In the latest act, the generals on June 7 banned criticism of the government, all but outlawed Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy and threatened its members with up to 20 years in jail if they attended its meetings. The next day, Suu Kyi defied the junta's dictate, met once again with her NLD colleagues, and addressed 5,000 supporters at her University Avenue compound. The military made no arrests, and Suu Kyi promised the gatherings would continue. On Sunday afternoon 10,000 people showed up, and the military was again nowhere in sight.

It was the democracy activist's second run-in with the government since her release from house arrest last July. When Suu Kyi scheduled a national congress last month to commemorate her party's 1990 election victory, the government detained 262 NLD supporters; some 100 may still be held. The State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) warned the NLD not to mistake its restraint last weekend for leniency. The generals, perhaps, are just waiting for their cue. "Nobody can be sure what they'll do," says a Yangon observer. "But they will respond, and the response will probably be severe."

 Myanmar's neighbors in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations preferred to stay off stage. They said as little as possible, but what they did say must have pleased SLORC. Officials in Bangkok, Jakarta and Manila confirmed that Myanmar's Foreign Minister Ohn Gyaw was still welcome to attend ASEAN's foreign ministers meeting in Jakarta July 22 as an official observer. And they signaled their continued support for Myanmar's inclusion for the first time in the 19-member ASEAN Regional Forum on security that will convene the following day.

 The only chorus of disapproval last week came from outside the region. U.S. President Bill Clinton dispatched two special envoys to visit four ASEAN capitals and Tokyo. Their aim was to coordinate a regional response to the stand-off between Suu Kyi and the generals. Retired ambassador William Brown called for an "Asian solution." He was told that ASEAN was sticking to its policy of "non-interference" and "constructive engagement."

Suu Kyi probably expected no more. ASEAN began drawing the generals out of their isolation and investing in the country while she was still under house arrest. Suu Kyi will "go the distance to bring democracy to the country," said one of her confidantes. But the question is: How far will the generals go to stop her? "Nobody really knows what SLORC will do," Suu Kyi told Asiaweek. "After all, these people can never be trusted."

 In recent weeks the military has required households to each send at least three people to applaud SLORC at rallies held outside of Yangon; the punishment for not doing so was a fine or prison. State-run papers have vilified Suu Kyi and her colleagues as a "handful of traitors fomenting trouble at the instigation of their alien masters." And for the first time, the government put up billboards at key intersections in the capital denouncing Suu Kyi in English.

 Because SLORC has invested both money and prestige in its Visit Myanmar 1996 effort, the billboards were, for some, a signal. "It shows that SLORC is really serious, but perplexed about how to stop her and the NLD," said a Yangon observer. Many believe SLORC's next step will be to round up NLD supporters and outlaw the party for violating the new decree. "We of course always considered this to be a possibility," Suu Kyi said. "We believe in hoping for the best and preparing for the worst."

In the meantime, the NLD is likely to begin drafting a constitution, challenging SLORC's own constitutional convention. "That would be treason, an attack on the government and Myanmar," said a government official. "SLORC can draw up any number of constitutions, but they will not be able to win the support or the confidence of the people," Suu Kyi responded. "A constitution is simply a piece of paper unless the people believe in it."

That is not the kind of comment that puts ASEAN leaders at ease. As K.S. Nathan, a professor of international affairs at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, explains: "ASEAN supports governments that are in place. It will consider SLORC, even if it is brutal in some ways, to be an effective regime for Myanmar."

 Singapore's Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew believes just that. He defended Myanmar's military at a Singapore function for foreign reporters last week, saying it was "the only instrument of government" in the country, and that without the power the military commands, Suu Kyi might not be able to rule.

She should stay "behind the fence and be a symbol," he suggested. When told of Lee's remarks, Suu Kyi said: "I think that is a little strange, because Singapore is not ruled by an armed force, is it?"

 ASEAN's support for SLORC may seem solid, but it is not necessarily deep-rooted. Just two years ago, Philippine President Fidel Ramos questioned the merit of including Myanmar in ASEAN and said that "it is not about to happen." While no fixed timetable for Myanmar's entry exists, some say it could be a full member as soon as 1998; others believe it will remain an observer for the next several years.

 Myanmar's potential for investors -- and the government's promised economic reforms -- have helped sway ASEAN leaders. Thailand has eyed the country's vast forests and gem mines for years. Singapore has made the development of Myanmar a national priority. Indonesia is heading to the frontier, too: President Suharto's son, Hutomo Mandala Putra, is entering the timber industry there.

 Myanmar's ambassador to Indonesia, Nyi Nyi Than, says that it is cynical to say his country is being courted just for its economic potential. Myanmar has maintained good relations with its neighbors for many years, he says. And the secret to such dialogue is, in a word, to whisper. "It is instinctive in us Asians not to lose face even when there are differences," Than says. "Problems can be discussed quietly." Nathan believes that ASEAN leaders will voice their concerns to Myanmar during the ARF meeting. Sotto voce, that is. "These things we don't do formally," Philippine Foreign Secretary Domingo Siazon told Asiaweek. "We talk about them in informal dinners and golf games."

 Even a suggested visit to Yangon by a seasoned diplomat such as Indonesia's foreign minister, Ali Alatas, was deemed too risky. A Foreign Ministry source says that Alatas believes that "Myanmar has been isolated for so long that the potential exists for such pressure to send it back into isolation." The only way Alatas might drop in, says a Bangkok-based diplomat, is if he could use Myanmar's impending ARF membership as camouflage. But that would not give him the pretext to meet Suu Kyi.

 Indeed, no ASEAN leader seems keen to head to 54 University Avenue anytime soon. "If Suu Kyi finds some middle ground with SLORC and becomes more legitimate," says Nathan, "then ASEAN will accept her." Until then, Suu Kyi must face the generals alone.

 --With additional reporting from Bangkok, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur and Manila


Ron Gluckman is an American reporter who is based in Hong Kong, but who roams around Asia for a number of publications, such as Asiaweek, which ran this story in June 1996. To look at an interview Ron Gluckman did with Burma's democratically-elected leader, click on Aung San Suu Kyi. To look at some of his other stories on Burma, please click on Down and Up in Myanmar, Tracking Myanmar, Rockin' Rangoon, on the border or Visit Myanmar?

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