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Western Press Review: The Week's Mideast Summits, Myanmar's Crackdown, And Iranian Liberalization

Prague, 6 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The two Mideast summits this week between U.S. President George W. Bush and Arab and Israeli leaders continue to garner much comment in the Western media today. Other topics include the arrest and ongoing detainment of Myanmar's (Burma's) pro-democracy activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been held incommunicado for a week (30 May); allegations of administration efforts to fix Azerbaijan's October presidential elections; and Iran's slow but steady moves toward liberalization.


An editorial from "The New York Times" reprinted in today's "International Herald Tribune" calls the meeting this week between U.S. President George W. Bush, Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas "a powerful omen of potential change."

The paper says: "What may set the current peace effort apart from previous failed attempts is the insistence that each leader face the concerns of the other by coming to terms with his own peace spoilers. For the Palestinians, that means violent splinter groups; for the Israelis, the settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip."

The meeting elicited a pledge from Sharon to begin dismantling the unauthorized outposts of Israeli settlers and to support the creation of a viable, "contiguous" Palestinian state. Abbas, for his part, denounced the use of terrorist violence and promised to crack down on the perpetrators, as well as to end the incitement against Israel that is often propagated in Palestinian schools, mosques, and its media.

And yet the "monumental nature of the task" that lies ahead for Israeli and Palestinian leaders, as well as for Washington, was underscored when both Israeli settlers and Palestinian extremists "immediately denounced the meeting and its conclusions."

The paper says Washington's involvement will be necessary to prevent radicals on both sides from "[derailing] the process" before more substantial steps can be taken. For the Palestinians, Hamas and Islamic Jihad must be disarmed; for Israel, real settlements must be removed, not just a handful of scattered outposts.


An editorial in "The Washington Post" writes, "A week has passed since one of the world's most courageous women, Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, came under attack by goons controlled by the military regime in her Southeast Asian nation of Burma," now Myanmar. She and some of her supporters have been held incommunicado since their arrest on 30 May; many, including Aung, are reported to be injured.

The editorial calls on U.S. President George W. Bush and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to "take the lead in demanding that UN diplomats and Red Cross officials be given access to Aung San Suu Kyi; that she be released from custody; and that the regime at long last take steps toward its promised transition to democracy."

Myanmar's people "voted overwhelmingly" in 1990 parliamentary elections for Aung San Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy, even though she was, at the time, still serving the 13 years she spent under house arrest. Yet the ruling junta "nullified the results and kept her confined."

"The Washington Post" says Myanmar's regional neighbors have pursued a policy of engagement with the regime that has now "quite obviously failed." The paper urges the U.S. Congress to ban the import of Burmese goods. While it acknowledges that such economic sanctions often "hurt workers more than rulers, [they] could be effective in Burma [because] most businesses there are controlled by the junta."


Writing in "Eurasia View," Kenan Aliyev says Azerbaijan's political opposition is already leveling charges of being suppressed, ahead of the official 17 June launch of the presidential election campaign. Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev appears to be improving in health following a public collapse in April and is expected to run for re-election in October.

Earlier this week (3 June), authorities prevented Azerbaijan's political opposition from demonstrating against a new draft election code outside the parliament building. The new code would allow the government to appoint two-thirds of the seats on the Central Election Commission, which oversees political campaigns and ballot counting.

Opposition leaders claim the crackdown against the protesters means the government intends to use all means necessary to retain power.

The chairman of the opposition Democratic Party of Azerbaijan, Rasul Guliev, who lives in self-imposed exile in the United States, has called for the international community to pressure President Aliev's administration into holding fair elections. Guliev, a former parliamentary speaker who split with Aliyev in 1996, has expressed interest in becoming a presidential candidate and has asked for international assistance to help him return safely to Azerbaijan, where he is wanted on embezzlement charges. Guliev insists the charges were politically motivated and aimed at preventing him from seeking political office in his native land.


"The Boston Globe" and "The New York Times" join "The Washington Post" (see above) in calling for economic sanctions to be placed on Myanmar, formerly Burma, following the ruling military junta's arrest of pro-democracy activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and several supporters of her National League for Democracy.

Violent clashes broke out between Aung supporters and authorities as Aung was traveling through northern Myanmar. The junta says four were killed and 50 wounded, but "The Boston Globe" cites unverified accounts of scores killed and hundreds injured. The regime claims Aung was subsequently taken into "protective custody."

"The Boston Globe" says the ruling junta's "obscene violations of human rights, its complicity in narcotics trafficking and its refusal to honor the overwhelming 1990 electoral victory of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy ought to make the junta an international pariah."

This week, bills have been introduced in both houses of Congress that would extend a visa ban for top Burmese officials, freeze Myanmar's U.S.-held assets and those of its officials, and ban imports.

The Boston daily urges U.S. President George W. Bush to back up his statement on 2 June condemning Aung's arrest with strong action, and sign an executive order that would swiftly put these bans in place as the bills make their way through Congress.

"The New York Times" concurs, adding that the ruling junta has had a year to live up to its pledges in May 2002 to grant citizens more freedoms and discuss liberalizing the political system. Those promises were made upon Aung's initial release from 13 years of house arrest. But now, the paper says, "all ambiguity is gone, and the world's response must be equally decisive."


In a contribution to the "International Herald Tribune," Cameron Kamran, an Iranian-American commentator on the Middle East, warns against a U.S. policy that would see Washington supporting a regime change in Iran. Kamran warns that the U.S. administration "would simply repeat past mistakes in dealing with Iran if it followed the advice of those calling loudest for American intervention."

He says after two decades "of corruption, mismanagement and repression by the clerical ruling elite," most Iranians are tired of rule by the repressive mullahs. "Both they and the world would be better off with a different form of government," says Kamran. "But America must be careful how it tries to influence change. Many Iranians still bitterly remember the CIA coup in 1953 that replaced the elected government of Mohammad Mossadeq with the dictatorship of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlevi."

Kamran says Shah Pahlevi "never recovered from the perception that his power and legitimacy were conferred from abroad," and he was overthrown from within in 1979. And those outsiders now calling for another imposed regime change in Iran "would go down the same disastrous road."

Iran does indeed have the most pro-American population in the Mideast, says Kamran. But Iranians "look to America as a beacon of future democracy, not a source of despotism from the past."


"Le Monde's" Gilles Paris writes from Aqaba, Jordan, on the outcome of the Mideast summit between U.S. President George W. Bush, Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas. Paris says the summit was carefully planned to avoid any negative surprises. Both Palestinian and Israeli leaders reaffirmed their commitment to the "road map," reaffirmed their positions while not risking "losing face," and avoided offending the United States, which has just re-engaged in a conflict it had abandoned for the better part of two years.

But by stating that the militant intifada had to come to an end, Paris says Abbas was only reiterating what he had said on previous occasions, even if he did add a condemnation of terrorist attacks against Israeli targets even when they take place in occupied territories. Not wishing to antagonize the other summit participants, Abbas avoided the topics of the return of refugees and the fate of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, whom both Israel and the U.S. would like to see marginalized.

For Sharon's part, he reiterated how a cessation of violence constituted merely a preliminary measure, and discreetly expressed Israel's reservations by referring to his support of the "road map" "as it was adopted by the Israeli government," that is, along with conditions that were rejected by the Palestinians.