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Myanmar: Pro-Democracy Leader Aung San Suu Kyi Released From House Arrest

Authorities in the southeast Asian state of Myanmar have released Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi from 19 months of house arrest and are allowing her to return to active political life. As RFE/RL's Jolyon Naegele reports, the regime's decision to release the dissident leader and offer her party a degree of power-sharing is reminiscent of the decision by Poland's communist regime in 1988 to legalize and share power with the banned Solidarity free trade union movement.

Prague, 6 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Today's decision by Myanmar's military government to release pro-democracy dissident Aung San Suu Kyi came following UN-brokered negotiations aimed at breaking a 12-year-old political deadlock in the country.

Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, told reporters today her release is unconditional -- unlike her release from six years of house arrest in 1995, when she was told she couldn't leave the capital, Yangon.

"There are no restrictions on my movements. I can go anywhere I like, and the road to my house has not yet been open. But this was decided in agreement between the two sides."

Nevertheless, Suu Kyi says it is still too early for her to consider traveling around the country. The authorities placed her under house arrest 19 months ago after she tried to travel to the country's second largest city, Mandalay.

Suu Kyi insists that even while under house arrest she remained a free woman.

"I have always felt free, because they have not been able to do anything to what really mattered -- my mind, my principles, what I believed in. They were not able to touch that, so I was free."

Suu Kyi now returns to politics in the hope of re-establishing democracy in what was once an economically flourishing state but which, under the dictatorship of the past 40 years, has become an economic basketcase. As she puts it, "The economy is in need of very, very speedy change."

In addition to military misrule, economic sanctions imposed by the U.S., the European Union, and other developed countries have contributed to the dire economic situation, marked by an inflation rate of 46 percent, rapid depreciation of the currency, the kyat, and widespread poverty. Since 1995, some 50 multinational corporations have cut ties with the country. And the Geneva-based International Labor Organization two years ago denounced the regime for condoning forced labor throughout the country.

Myanmar -- formerly known as Burma -- is inhabited by some 42 million people. Suu Kyi's father, Aung San, negotiated Burma's independence from Britain in 1947 but was assassinated six months later, together with six other members of the interim government.

The military seized power in a bloodless coup in 1962 and imposed socialism. In 1988, students launched a national uprising for democracy, staging mass demonstrations that security forces crushed by firing on demonstrators, killing hundreds. Amid the turmoil, Suu Kyi founded the National League for Democracy Party (NLD).

In 1989, the regime changed the country's name from Burma to Myanmar and the capital's name from Rangoon to Yangon, but the opposition refused to accept the changes.

In 1990, with Suu Kyi under house arrest, her NLD won 80 percent of the mandates in parliamentary elections. The regime rejected the results, however.

Suu Kyi describes the regime's decision today as "a new dawn for the country," adding that contacts between the opposition and the regime -- begun in October 2000 -- will continue and that the initial phase of confidence-building is over. The next step, she says, will be "discussions about policy" between her party and the regime.

"The party was founded in order to bring democracy to Burma, so that's its task, that is what we have to do. And I, as the general secretary of the party, must do everything I can to make sure that democracy comes to Burma quickly and it comes in the right way."

Governments in the region and around the world welcomed Suu Kyi's release. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said he is "very pleased" and that she will be allowed now to "participate in political life once again." EU External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten called her release a "positive step" for EU relations with Myanmar, but said he hopes Suu Kyi has been granted "unconditional" freedom. Australia referred to "signs of progress in Burma of increasing moderation and compromise."

The human rights group Amnesty International says Suu Kyi's release "is a very positive development for the human rights situation in Myanmar, and we hope that it will soon be followed by the release of the 1,500 who remain behind bars."

The UN envoy to Myanmar, Razali Ismail, told the AFP news agency that the release is an "important beginning and a major milestone towards the process of national reconciliation."

James Mawdsley is a British human rights activist who spent 14 months of a five-year jail sentence in solitary confinement in a Myanmar prison before being released in October 2000. He is the author of a just-published book on Burmese politics, "The Iron Road: A Stand for Truth and Democracy in Burma."

In an interview with RFE/RL, Mawdsley described the release of Suu Kyi as "wonderful news and a tremendous step for the whole of Burma."

"I think the underlying reason is basically the regime is absolutely broke and desperate for hard currency. And they are beginning to realize increasingly that they cannot flout international opinion and break international law with impunity. So the reason they've released Suu Kyi is with extreme reluctance -- they basically hope to soften up the international community."

But Mawdsley says the U.S and the EU must continue to take a robust line against Myanmar, since some 1,500 political prisoners -- including 15 elected deputies -- remain in jail, in many cases even though they have already served their full sentences. Moreover, he notes, the Burmese army continues to launch offensives against various ethnic groups around the country.

But the junta's current reconciliatory actions are reminiscent of moves by Polish Prime Minister Mieczyslaw Rakowski in late 1988 to legalize the banned Solidarity free trade union and invite its leaders to join the government. The Polish economy was on the verge of collapse and the country's Communist rulers, who had imposed martial law in December 1981 to crush Solidarity, were no longer willing -- after nearly seven years -- to take full responsibility for the country's fate. Solidarity responded cautiously, insisting on free elections to re-establish its legitimacy.

Mawdsley rejects any suggestion that the Myanmar regime intends to share power, however.

"I do not think the regime would ever willingly give up any power at all. They're doing this because of the extremely dire situation that they're in. The regime knows from [its] own experience that economic collapse is followed by political collapse. In 1987, the economy was similar to the situation now -- it was absolutely dire. And that, of course, was followed by political uprisings the following year."