- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 20, 2002

BANGKOK Mahathir Mohamad, the Malaysian prime minister, left Burma yesterday after a two-day visit that became a high-profile trade mission and a public endorsement of the military government.

Hopes had been high that Mr. Mahathir would exploit his close relationship with the ruling generals to encourage them to begin a meaningful dialogue with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

As a regional power, Malaysia has extensive influence with the junta.

Instead Mr. Mahathir brought with him more than 250 businessmen and bolstered one of the world's most repressive regimes by warning against the perils of liberal democracy.

At the signing of a deal awarding four exploration contracts to Malaysia's national oil company, Petronas, he said:

"If you don't know how to handle democracy, you will end up with anarchy. Therefore when opting for democracy, it is necessary that the process is gradual."

The Malaysians canceled a breakfast meeting between their foreign minister and Mrs. Suu Kyi, who was freed from 19 months' house arrest in May.

Mr. Mahathir had agreed earlier to a Burmese request not to pay a visit to the 57-year-old former London University doctoral student.

Campaigners for reform in Burma were left hoping that in private Mr. Mahathir would have tried to convince the generals that political tolerance and market reforms were in the interests of all.

Mr. Mahathir has ruled Malaysia for 21 years by imposing limits on opposition parties and by limiting dissent.

He has also presided over spectacular economic growth.

Many of the substantial Malaysian commercial contingent are likely to remain in Rangoon hunting for opportunities in a country full of potential.

Malaysia and Singapore are two of the highest investors in Burma, which is virtually shunned by Western companies because of its poor economic management, corruption and human rights record.

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