Myanmar’s Economic Plight Worsens

May 5, 2003

By DANIEL LOVERING, Associated Press Writer

BANGKOK, Thailand – Myanmar’s military government touted opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest a year ago as a new page in the country’s history. But now, hopes for a political dialogue have dimmed and Myanmar’s economic plight is worse, Suu Kyi and analysts say.

Suu Kyi, winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, was freed from 1 1/2 years of house arrest on May 6, 2002, and has been allowed to travel around the country, meeting supporters and reopening offices of her National League for Democracy party.

But Suu Kyi claims she and her followers have been intimidated and their efforts to revive the party hampered. The National League for Democracy won national elections in 1990 but was never allowed to take power.

The military regime denies any deliberate effort “to interfere with her travels or activities” and insists it is guiding the country through a peaceful transition to democracy.

On Sunday, the government released 18 political prisoners, including 12 members of Suu Kyi’s party, and said it was moving the country toward democracy after 41 years of military rule.

“The releases are the latest in a series of efforts by the government to move Myanmar closer to multiparty democracy and national reconciliation,” a government statement said.

More than 1,200 political prisoners still languish behind bars, according to London-based rights group Amnesty International.

Suu Kyi and the ruling junta entered U.N.-brokered talks in October 2000 to push toward reconciliation and democratic reforms, but Suu Kyi says negotiations have gone virtually nowhere.

“When I was released, it was agreed between the authorities and ourselves that … we should go on to a more advanced stage of our relationship,” Suu Kyi said recently in the capital, Yangon.

“But I do not think there has been any progress. In fact, I think there has been some kind of regression. I think we have been forced to question the sincerity of the (government).”

The junta has strengthened trade and diplomatic ties with neighbors including China, India and Thailand. But relations with many Western nations, critical of Myanmar’s political and human rights conditions, are tense.

Myanmar’s already weak economy plunged into crisis in February, when panicked residents withdrew money from the country’s 20 private banks after the collapse of about a dozen private financial companies.

“If this was an example of a ‘new page’ which the military heralded last May 6, very little has been inscribed on it,” said Josef Silverstein, an American political scientist and professor emeritus at Rutgers University in New Jersey who has studied Myanmar for half a century.

“There was not change in the internal political environment, no real significant release of political prisoners, no restoration of any political rights,” Silverstein said by e-mail.

He also said the international community has failed to effectively lobby for political change in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.

Secretary of State Colin Powell, who condemned Myanmar’s regime before the U.S. Senate last week, said it would be difficult to crack the junta’s will but the United States would continue working with allies to promote change.

Silverstein said this policy was “hardly a new and daring approach, and in light of the past not likely to be fruitful.”