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Wednesday, 5 December, 2001, 17:16 GMT
Burma's slow road to reform
Aung San Suu Kyi
Aung San Suu Kyi - shortly before being awarded the Nobel prize in 1991
By the BBC's Larry Jagan in Bangkok

In the 10 years since Burma's opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize the country has moved very little towards achieving the democratic change she has so steadfastly fought for.

The military still run the country with an iron grip. There is no freedom of speech and the country's press is tightly controlled by the army. And the economy teeters on the brink of collapse.

Ten years ago there was no prospect of political reform, now at least there is hope

But there are some significant changes. Ten years ago, Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest and unable to see anyone including her husband, the English academic Michael Aris or children. This is no longer the case.

At first she was allowed occasional visits by her husband and children. Then on 10 July 1995, she was released from house arrest, after being held there for almost six years.

She is once again under virtual house arrest, where she has been since 22 September 2000 after she tried to travel outside Rangoon.

The difference now is that she is allowed frequent visitors, including her sons.

Personal tragedy

But of course Aung San Suu Kyi also suffered a major personal tragedy during this time. Her husband died of cancer in March 1999.

Burma's intelligence chief, Lieutenant-General Khin Nyunt in Thailand
Burma's intelligence chief is reported to have held talks with Aung San Suu Kyi

The military authorities did offer to allow her to travel to the United Kingdom to see him on his deathbed.

But she refused for fear that the military government would not allow her back into the country.

She had not seen him for three years.

Ten years ago the Burmese army was still fighting bitter battles against the ethnic rebel groups which controlled much of the country's border areas.

Now all but a very few, particularly the Karen National Union, have signed ceasefire agreements with Rangoon, and the Burmese military now effectively controls the borders.

Burma was also facing growing international isolation 10 years ago, and apart from China had virtually no friends.

Rangoon increasingly relied on the Chinese for military hardware, training and trade - a increasingly close relationship that alarmed the rest of Asia.

New policy

Since then the countries of the region have pursued a vigorous policy of engagement.

In July 1997 Burma was admitted to the south east Asian regional grouping, Asean, and India has developed close relations.

Since her release from house arrest six years ago, Aung San Suu Kyi has remained a thorn in the military's side

The rest of the international community is pondering reducing Burma's international isolation, provided their is substantial political reform in the near future.

And its on the political front that that little has changed. Ten years ago when Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel peace prize, university students demonstrated their support for democracy with small scale protests.

The authorities reacted by clearing the universities and sending the students home.

They remained shut for some time, and although the government says the country's universities and colleges opened last year - in effect are only partly opened for fear that students will take to the streets again.

Continuing struggle

But the political struggle goes on. Since her release from house arrest six years ago, Aung San Suu Kyi has remained a thorn in the military's side.

Aung San Suu Kyi
Aung San Suu Kyi spent six days in her car at a military roadblock

She continued to remind them that her party, the National League for Democracy has convincingly won the national elections held in May 1990.

The NLD has continued to demand that the military junta hand over power to a civilian administration.

The official press has vilified her. When she tried to travel outside Rangoon in July and August 1998, and again in August and September 2000 to visit her party members in regional centres she was forcibly restrained.

She left Burma's military leaders in doubt that she was not going to give up her fight to see democracy restored to Burma.

It was partly this continuous confrontation between the military and Aung San Suu Kyi, along with growing pressure from Burma's neighbours - especially Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, and an escalating economic crisis which led Burma's Generals to feel that they had to find a way to accommodate the opposition leader.


For more than a year now the military junta and Aung San Suu Kyi have engaged in what has become called a dialogue process.

These may be only small measures ... but they do indicate that the military leaders are prepared to make concessions

Burmese diplomat

"It's a process of confidence-building and a preliminary to actual talks," the NLD spokesman U Lwin told BBC.

It a process that has been facilitated by the UN envoy for Burma, the Malaysian diplomat Razali Ismail.

He has made six visits to Rangoon in the past 18 months encouraging the two sides to talk to each other.

While the two sides have not had face-to-face discussions, although the intelligence chief Lieutenant General Khin Nyunt has meet Aung San Suu Kyi twice in the last 12 months, substantial progress has been made.

More than 200 political prisoners have been released. Many of the NLD's local offices have been allowed to open, and NLD members are now able to travel much more freely, even between regional offices and Rangoon.

"These may be only small measures," said a diplomat, "but they do indicate that the Burmese military leaders are prepared to make concessions to the Aung San Suu Kyi."

While Aung San Suu Kyi's uncompromising determination has helped her stand up to the Generals, it has not always endeared her to all her supporters.

'Too autocratic'

There have been some in the NLD over the last six years who felt she has too autocratic style of leadership and should have been more conciliatory towards the military much earlier.

Aung San Suu Kyi addresses supporters outside her house
Some have accused Aung San Suu Kyi of being too autocratic

She has of course dismissed these allegations saying that the military junta had declared war on the party and that centralised leadership was sometimes needed as a matter of survival.

On the face of it at least, Burma - 10 years after Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize - has not changed much, and is no nearer having truly democratic institutions.

But in reality the situation has changed - "qualitative rather than quantitative" according to diplomats and frequent visitors to Burma.

Ten years ago there was no prospect of political reform, now at least there is hope.

See also:

06 Sep 01 | Asia-Pacific
Burma opposition denies 'power share'
04 Sep 01 | Asia-Pacific
Burma and Thailand seek closer ties
27 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
Burmese opposition backs talks
20 Jul 01 | Asia-Pacific
Burmese government regrets no show
19 Jul 01 | Asia-Pacific
Analysis: Burma talks stalled
19 Jul 01 | Asia-Pacific
Opposition prisoners freed in Burma
26 May 00 | Asia-Pacific
Burma: 10 years on
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