- The Washington Times - Monday, May 6, 2002

RANGOON, Burma The ruling junta announced the release today of Aung San Suu Kyi, declaring a "new page" in the country's history after having held the pro-democracy leader under house arrest for more than 20 months.
"As of today, she is at liberty to carry out all activities, including her party's," a government spokesman told Reuters news agency in Rangoon. Officials of her National League for Democracy said she would visit the party's headquarters later today.
Burma's ambassador to the United States, Linn Myaing, made a similar statement to the Associated Press in Washington, where DCI Group, a public relations firm representing the junta, issued a statement from the generals who rule one of the world's most reclusive countries.
"Today marks the start of a new page for the people of Myanmar and the international community," the junta said, using the name for the country preferred by the military rulers.
"We shall recommit ourselves to allowing all of our citizens to participate freely in the life of our political process while giving precedence to national unity, peace and the stability of the country as well as the region."
Tin Oo, vice chairman of the National League for Democracy, told journalists in Rangoon late last week that Mrs. Suu Kyi, 56, had discussed the terms of her release with the ruling generals, and that final arrangements were being made.
"She has been released," he confirmed at the party headquarters today. "She is well."
Mrs. Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who has become an international pro-democracy symbol, has been holed up in her Rangoon home with the phone line cut for over 20 months since she defied a travel ban by trying to visit NLD supporters outside the capital in September 2000.
Since then, she has been engaged in U.N.-brokered talks with the military, trying to negotiate her release.
Last week, she met with key leaders of the State Peace and Development Council, as the ruling junta calls itself, including the head of military intelligence, Gen. Khin Nyunt, signaling that the generals were eager to reach a settlement with Mrs. Suu Kyi.
This comes on the heels of a meeting last month between the opposition leader and U.N. special envoy Razali Ismail, who said he expected "something big" to happen soon.
Mrs. Suu Kyi, the Oxford-educated daughter of Burma's post-World War II independence leader Aung San, has led the opposition movement since 1988, when the military brutally crushed pro-democracy protests.
In 1990, the NLD won elections by a landslide, but the generals refused to hand over power. Instead thousands of NLD supporters were imprisoned, while Mrs. Suu Kyi was confined to her lakeside home for most of the last 12 years.
Hopes ran high for a political breakthrough when the U.N.-brokered talks began in late 2000. But as time passed with few tangible results, Burma watchers inside and outside the country became increasingly impatient and questioned what Mr. Razali was accomplishing.
"After 18 months, the talks haven't moved beyond the confidence-building stage," U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly said last month. "It's time to see some real results in Rangoon like the release of Aung San Suu Kyi without restrictions."
Without such results, Congress had threatened to halt the roughly $400 million worth of goods Burma exports to the United States annually, supplementing already existing sanctions that prevent any new investment in Burma by American companies.
Facing increased pressure from abroad and a deteriorating economy at home, the SPDC is finally poised to free Mrs. Suu Kyi and take other steps to improve the political climate. Some analysts think the junta had little choice.
"With a devastated real economy, massive unemployment, skyrocketing inflation and a near-worthless currency, Burma is facing a humanitarian crisis of unimaginable proportions. The social impact will be huge," said a Western diplomat in Rangoon, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
"The military desperately needs foreign assistance. But without offering a fig leaf to the pro-democracy camp, there's little hope any aid or investment will be coming soon."
But other analysts think the military's willingness to compromise has little to do with international pressure.
"It's the Burmese people, not the military, who bear the brunt of international sanctions," said a diplomat at the Thai Embassy in Rangoon. "The SPDC's main goal is to keep power and it doesn't need the outside world for that."
Rather, some Burma watchers speculate that infighting within the SPDC itself is behind Mrs. Suu Kyi's expected.
The country's three top military figures intelligence chief Khin Nyunt, head of state Gen. Than Shwe and army chief Maung Aye wield complete power in the country. But with Gen. Than Shwe set to retire next year, Gen. Khin and the hard-line Gen. Maung Aye are jockeying for power.
According to Burma watcher and journalist Aung Zaw, Mr. Khin Nyunt has embraced the talks with Mrs. Suu Kyi in order to build power base outside the Burmese army, which is beholden to Gen. Maung.
"He'd release Suu Kyi if it would improve his lot against Maung Aye, who believes that any compromise with Suu Kyi could result in a major resurgence of the democratic movement that could not be suppressed by force," he said.

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