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 You are in: Special Report: 1998: 08/98: Burma  
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Burma Friday, 14 August, 1998, 15:20 GMT 16:20 UK
What chance for change?
Aung San Suu Kyi and her party are drawing worldwide attention
By correspondent Christopher Gunness, who covered the dramatic events a decade ago that brought Burma into the international spotlight:

Ten years ago this week, the people of Burma decided that enough was enough.

BBC correspondent Chris Gunness
Christopher Gunness
After 26 years of autocratic socialism under General Ne Win, they came onto the streets of the country in their millions, demanding democracy and the right to live in a society that respected human rights. That was in June and July of 1988.

But after a general strike was declared at the beginning of August, the junta's response was military force. On 18 September, the army gunned down hundreds of unarmed demonstrators and declared martial law.

This was the birth of the so-called SLORC, the ruling military council, which ten years on in its new incarnation, the State Peace and Development Council, maintains its iron grip on power.

That was most poignantly demonstrated last month, when the leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, attempted to travel outside Rangoon.

soldiers
So far, the authorities show no sign of compromise
She had demanded that the parliament elected in 1990 - but banned by the military - should be convened by 21 August. She wanted to meet members of the NLD to discuss arrangements.

The reality of Burma's politics was laid bare in the full glare of the international press - Aung San Suu Kyi was forced after a week in the sweltering sun to return to her home in Rangoon. Democracy was once again forced into retreat.

Asian nations outraged

But despite the apparent hopelessness, that solitary protest could yet prove a watershed.

The Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) was meeting at the time in Manila, capital of the Philippines.

Protester outside the Burmese embassy in Thailand
Protesting outside the Burmese embassy in Thailand
There was a genuine sense of outrage among Thai and Filipino delegations about the behaviour of the Burmese military authorities. The ASEAN injunction against criticising the internal affairs of member countries was questioned as never before.

Despite the lack of outspoken criticism, the way seems open for a more robust policy towards Burma, even though countries like Indonesia and Singapore are vehemently opposed to what they see as interference.

This gives a greater diplomatic freedom to Japan - a regional giant always aware of accusations of being East Asia's bully.

If there are pressures within ASEAN to bring about the beginnings of dialogue within Burma, so some in the foreign ministry in Tokyo argue, then Japan is that much freer to push a similar agenda, stressing that it is what increasingly those in the region actually want.

And with a possible convergence of Japanese, Thai and Filipino policy, with that of the European Union and America, those who argue against a more forthright policy towards Rangoon look increasingly isolated.

Consensus for change, even after ten years, is slowly beginning to build.

Economy may force compromise

But ultimately the solution to a uniquely Burmese problem lies uniquely within Burma itself.

The diplomatic nihilists say that there are no signs whatsoever that the junta is prepared to give up power, even if the industries that sustain their rule - and in many cases, personal wealth - are ground into the economic dust.

But economic desperation produces dissent, even within the most autocratic regimes. And here lies the paradox for the regime that remains a source of hope among those who espouse change - if it clings to power, it will find itself in control of a bankrupt and unsustainable economy.

Eventually, the optimistic argument runs, the junta will be forced to cut and run and seek to accommodate the opposition as a matter of pragmatism, if not survival.

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Chris Gunness in 1991 recalls the popular uprising
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