- The Washington Times - Friday, November 28, 2003


RANGOON, Burma — Five top leaders of the National League for Democracy (NLD) freed this week by the military regime after nearly six months under house arrest vowed to pursue their goal of an elected civilian government for their country.

NLD founder Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, remains in detention.

“We are very relieved to be out,” said Soe Myint, who was released Sunday along with other top NLD members Hla Pe, Nyunt Wai, and Than Tun. A fifth high-ranking NLD member, Lun Tin, was set free by the military government on Monday. All are in their 70s and 80s, and all were elected in Burma’s 1990 general elections to parliament, which the ruling junta never allowed to convene.

“No reason was given for our release and no reason was given for us being detained. But because of the profession we are in, we are used to this,” Mr. Myint told Agence France-Presse at a meeting at Mr. Tun’s home.

“As far as we are concerned, we will just continue from where we left off,” he said of the party that was virtually shut down after May 30 unrest led to a crackdown on the NLD and the closure of all its offices nationwide.

Mrs. Suu Kyi and all eight members of her party’s Central Executive Committee were detained after the clashes between NLD supporters and a pro-junta gang in northern Burma, which are believed to have left dozens dead.

The Nobel peace laureate is still confined to her Rangoon home, as are NLD chairman Aung Shwe and secretary U Lwin, while the party’s vice president, Tin Oo, is in Kalay prison near the Indian border.

The released members said they were still deliberating how to respond to a “road map to democracy” announced by the government during their detention, which includes a plan for free elections under a new constitution.

But amid reports that the generals have established new contacts with Mrs. Suu Kyi, they said they were not aware of any dialogue.

“We have always demanded talks and discussions on a basis of equality and as free persons,” Mr. Wai said.

“We are here to implement the people’s program and not a dictated program,” he said, alluding to the NLD’s landslide victory at the ballot box in 1990.

Mr. Wai said the five had asked for permission to see Mrs. Suu Kyi but that the government had denied the request, and they had no idea when she might be freed.

The five were released as a six-month deadline approached, under which existing law requires unsentenced detainees to be set free or have the restrictions renewed for another six months.

Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, the United Nations’ rights envoy to Burma, demanded this month that the junta release some 1,300 political prisoners, particularly the elderly and infirm.

“These old gentlemen, their place is not in prison,” Mr. Pinheiro said after his sixth mission to the military-run state.

Mrs. Suu Kyi is being held at her lakeside family home, where she spent two other lengthy spells under house arrest.

After meeting with Mrs. Suu Kyi this month, Mr. Pinheiro said she would refuse freedom from house arrest until the ruling generals released dozens of her jailed colleagues. He said at least 153 opposition figures had been put under detention after the May unrest and 27 of them remained in jail.

Burma experts said the release of the five does not mean Mrs. Suu Kyi will be set free soon.

“I wouldn’t read too much into it at this point,” said one Rangoon-based diplomat. “Suu Kyi is in a different category to everyone else, and there will be a different decision-making progress for that.”

The crackdown after May 30 unleashed a worldwide outcry, led by the United States and the European Union, which tightened economic sanctions against the regime.

But the ruling State Peace and Development Committee (SPDC), as the junta styles itself, has stubbornly resisted calls from Western and Asian governments alike to release Mrs. Suu Kyi.

Burma’s pro-democracy parties called on the military government last week to release NLD detainees and begin sincere talks on political reform, saying it is the country’s only path to peace and national reconciliation.

The calls came in a series of statements read at a ceremony to mark National Day, which commemorates the first student boycott against British colonial rule 83 years ago.

“We firmly believe that a tripartite dialogue involving the nation’s three biggest forces [the military, NLD and ethnic minority groups] is the one and only way to peace and national reconciliation,” said a well-known group of veteran politicians, mostly in their 90s, who organized the meeting.

They said that despite the many years that had passed since the 1988 mass uprising that led to a military takeover by the current regime, and 1990 elections that were won by the NLD then ignored by the regime, the people’s aspirations for democracy remain unfulfilled.

And though cease-fires have been negotiated with some armed ethnic groups, other insurrections that broke out after independence in 1948 continue.

Elected NLD Member of Parliament Thein Myint, one of several members of the party who attended the meeting with representatives of ethnic groups, deplored that his party, with its entire leadership in detention, was unable to operate.

Also last week, the junta rejected a report that North Korea is selling Burma missiles and providing nuclear technology, saying the leadership had no intention of threatening its neighbors with weapons.

“[Burma] is a country which is everybody’s friend and nobody’s ally or enemy,” the government said. After seizing power, the generals changed the country’s name to Myanmar and the capital’s name from Rangoon to Yangon.

“The country is living peacefully with her neighbors and does not have any ambition to arm itself with nuclear weapons and to become a threat to others,” the regime said in a statement.

In an article titled “Dangerous Bedfellows,” the Far Eastern Economic Review reported that signs of growing military ties between North Korea and Burma were causing concern among U.S. and Asian security officials.

The report by the Hong Kong-based newsweekly said diplomats had detected indications that Pyongyang may be supplying or planning to supply Burma with new weapons, possibly in exchange for shipments of heroin.

It cited them as saying that intelligence operatives had detected North Korean technicians unloading heavy equipment near the central town of Natmauk, near where the military government hopes to build a nuclear research reactor.

The report said Burma has also begun negotiating the purchase of surface-to-surface missiles, and that North Korean technicians were working at a naval base near Rangoon, possibly preparing to install the weapons on Burmese warships.

“An alliance between two pariah states up against the wall could be dangerous for the region and beyond, especially as one of them may have nuclear-weapons technology that it is ready to export,” the report said.

In an official fact sheet, the regime said the article was “rather speculative” and that Burma needs all its resources to develop the impoverished nation.

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