"If you want to put questions to people, the civilized way is to make an appointment with them, not drag them away in the middle of the night."
So said Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader of the country most people still know as Burma, after the ruling junta recently detained 273 of her supporters in the National League for Democracy (NLD). Her words were meant to defuse tensions. For if Suu Kyi had chosen to inflame the thousands who still gather regularly at her home to hear her speak, there might have been a re play of the military crackdown of 1988, when thousands lost their lives.
Still, in maintaining a steely calm in the face of intimidation, she has shrewdly refocused world attention on the repressive rule of Myanmar's State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). Moreover, she has shown that six years of house arrest, which ended in 1995, have neither dimmed her political savvy nor neutralized her as a powerful force of opposition to SLORC. If there is a flaw in Suu Kyi's recent perfor mance, it lies in her criticism of the "constructive engagement" that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has adopted toward Yangon (SLORC's name for the capital, Rangoon). The policy had been a failure, she said, because it has not led to democracy in Myanmar. Yet that never was a goal of constructive engagement. In maintaining normal diplomatic and business ties with Yangon, ASEAN seeks to foster stability and development in its troubled neighbor. If that policy eventually gives rise to greater democracy - as it has elsewhere in Asia - that would be a happy byproduct.
Even so, there are signs that ASEAN's brand of quiet diplomacy has reaped political dividends. In fact, Suu Kyi's ability to level public criticisms of SLORC over the past year may owe more than a nod to constructive engagement. It is understood that Myanmar wants membership in ASEAN [In July, Myanmar made significant progress toward economic integration with its neighbors when it was granted observer status in ASEAN. -WPR]
Suu Kyi also suggested that ASEAN's engagement efforts have not brought even economic advances to her country. She is closer to the mark there. According to the Asian Development Bank, Myanmar's gross domestic product) has grown by 7.5 percent annually in the past four years. Yet the base was so low that the momentum will have to be maintained for some time for the achievement to be meaningful. Meanwhile, Myanmar's people remain among Asia's poorest, while inflation has risen to a debilitating 25 percent. Between 1990 and 1995, foreign investors put $815 million into Myanmar. Vietnam, by contrast, garnered some $18 billion over the past decade.
A solution to Myanmar's problems, however, does not lie in the actions of other countries. The key is a healing of the deep divisions between the generals and Suu Kyi and her many backers. To its credit, SLORC allowed a free election to take place in 1990Qwhich the NLD won by a landslide. Since then, the generals have had to deal with the popular mandate the exercise bestowed upon Suu Kyi and her parry. Yangon has tried one way: by nullifying the poll results and keeping Suu Kyi under house arrest. That the junta was eventually obliged to release her was a clear admission of the bankruptcy of that approach.
It is time for SLORC to adopt a new tack. It should release the rest of the NLD members under detention and begin a dialogue with Suu Kyi. The generals should allow her and some of her allies meaningful roles in govermnent. She would be able to persuade many of the exiled Burmese intelligentsia to return home and help rebuild the country. Myanmar desperately needs their skills.
ASEAN members should lobby Yangon to undertake the above initiativesQand be ready to talk to Suu Kyi if it will not do so. A historic compromise now stares the generals in the face. For their nation's sake, they should embrace it.
June 14, 1996
Asiaweek (independent newsmagazine), Hong Kong