- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 31, 2000

BANGKOK A week-old standoff with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has focused attention on Burma's repressive regime at a time when Asian neighbors and Western countries are exploring closer commercial and military ties.

Mrs. Suu Kyi, the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner, has been living in or next to her car for seven days outside the capital, where she and a dozen supporters are surrounded by police while they refuse to return to Rangoon.

It is the second protest of its kind mounted by Mrs. Suu Kyi since she led a pro-democracy uprising against the military in 1988, and has drawn statements of concern from around the world, including several countries that have been warming up to Burma's government.

Regional neighbors China, India and Pakistan are prominent among those said to be cultivating relations with Burma, which is under crippling international sanctions because of massive rights violations by the ruling junta, who call the country Myanmar.

More surprisingly, the European Union has openly begun a "dialogue" with the Burmese rulers and Western intelligence sources give credence to published reports of Israeli military assistance to the pariah nation.

Western diplomats based in Rangoon say high-profile business delegations from India have visited Rangoon several times in the past four months, and the two countries are considering building a natural gas pipeline between them.

China meanwhile has sold Burma jet fighters and heavy arms and is working with Rangoon on cross-border development projects, according to one diplomatic source, who declined to be identified.

Both Pakistani and Western newspapers have reported that Pakistan has sent weapons specialists to Burma, while several Burmese military officers have attended training programs in Pakistan.

Even the European Union, which along with the United States has led the campaign to impose sanctions, has inched closer to embracing Rangoon.

The EU, which broke off ministerial-level contact with Burma in 1996, is in the process of establishing a "critical dialogue" with Rangoon, EU External Affairs Commissioner Chris Patten said during a recent visit to Thailand.

In this critical dialogue, "We will discuss all issues but will remain free to criticize Burma," he said.

The EU reportedly will be sending a delegation of officials to Rangoon within the next four months.

Western military analysts also say Israel is helping Burma to modernize its military forces, renewing a relationship that began in the 1950s after both nations gained independence from British rule.

Israel has routinely denied such reports in the past. However, Jane's Intelligence Review reported in March that the Israeli defense manufacturing company Elbit won a contract in August 1997 to upgrade three squadrons of Chinese-built F-7 fighters and FT-7 trainers for Burma.

The Jane's article also cited "several reports" that Israel was providing electronics and other assistance in the construction and fitting out of three new warships being built in Rangoon.

Such military and political ties will face growing scrutiny in the light of the latest confrontation outside Rangoon, where Mrs. Suu Kyi has camped by a roadside since Aug. 24.

She and 12 supporters, traveling in a car and a pickup truck, were stopped by police in the suburb of Dala and forced to move to a muddy mosquito-infested area. Refusing to return to the capital, Mrs. Suu Kyi and her party have spent the week sleeping in the vehicles or under makeshift tents.

Thai officials warned this week that the standoff could hurt relations both with the European Union and with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which took the controversial step of admitting Burma as a member in 1997.

At an annual meeting of Nordic foreign ministers on Tuesday, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden condemned the infringement of Mrs. Suu Kyi's democratic rights and expressed worries about her safety and health.

Also Tuesday, U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard said Secretary-General Kofi Annan "is increasingly concerned about the well-being" of Mrs. Suu Kyi, and the other leaders of her National League for Democracy.

The junta, which freed Mrs. Suu Kyi from house arrest in 1995 but still limits her movements, signaled this week that its patience with her defiance was wearing thin.

It said her party was prevented from traveling farther to "protect them from being harmed by those who have sound reasons for resentment and indignation toward her." Her calls for a boycott of investment and tourism in Burma had caused widespread unemployment, it said.

Mrs. Suu Kyi last tried to leave Rangoon in 1998, resulting in a similar six-day standoff that generated international attention. Journalists have not been allowed to go near the area where her car is parked.

Burma has faced a decade of increasingly tighter sanctions, imposed by foreign states after the junta nullified the 1990 general election victory of Mrs. Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy.

It also stands accused of atrocious human rights abuses. In its most recent report on Burma, Amnesty International accused the junta of perpetrating torture, slavery, forced labor and extrajudicial executions.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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