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Burma Finds Itself With Fewer And Fewer Friends

by Priscilla Koh

Burma In Crisis Over Arrest Of Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi
(IPS) BANGKOK -- Seminars have been held and many column inches devoted the so-called 'road map' for Burma's democratization, but to many Burmese exiles here it is largely 'old wine in new skin' or at best, a hope that is tempting to nurse but is unlikely to yield results.

Zin Linn, a member of Burma's government-in-exile, the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB), says the plan is nothing but "a time-buying" device for both sides -- the Burmese junta and the Thai government, which floated this idea in July.

"This road map will make it look as if they are really doing something to change the situation," Zin Linn said in an interview. "It could help to reduce international pressure on both governments. At the same time, it makes both sides look good."

The cards are not on the side of the Burmese generals at the moment, given pressure from foreign governments and critics in the wake of the May 30 re-arrest of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

In the weeks and months after she and her followers were seized in northern Burma, an attack critics say was done by pro-Rangoon vigilantes, countries like the United States have slapped or threatened a series of economic and political sanctions on Burma.

The U.S. government has passed a new law barring imports from Burma. This adds to other measures that other governments and institutions have taken over the years, ranging from the European Union to the International Labor Organization.

Even the usually taciturn and non-confrontational members of the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN), led by Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, have voiced their concerns over the political deadlock in Burma.

Of late, Thailand has also come under fire from the U.S. government for 'siding' with Burma, after Bangkok said it was not the time to play tough with Rangoon.

The 'road map' is still being discussed and shaped, and reports say Thai officials plant to meet with different political and ethnic groups from Burma.

But from various reports in media, the 'map' is envisaged to be a series of 10 or 12 steps that would help Rangoon move towards full democracy within the next few years.

Last week, Thai officials discussed five stages of the plan to the English-language 'Bangkok Post' newspaper.

The first stage would see a return to the status quo before the May 30 incident, meaning the release of all political prisoners from house arrest, including Aung San Suu Kyi, and the reopening of various branch offices of her National League for Democracy (NLD) party.

In the next stage of 'confidence building', there would be a credible investigation into the violent attack against Suu Kyi, an end to the media campaign against her, and truce agreements reached with the remaining armed opposition groups.

The subsequent stage will involve the drafting of a constitution that would include the military, the democratic opposition and the ethnic groups, followed by the adoption of this document.

During the fourth and fifth stages, an independent election would go underway. At the end of the process, an international conference on aid for Burma would be held, media reports say.

Meantime, Thailand's role and policy toward Burma is of particular concern to both local analysts and Burmese exiles.

Some Thai analysts question Thailand's ability to take up the task of the 'road map' -- presented like the 'road map' the U.S. government laid out in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- through the efforts of "certain ministerial officers" on each side or as a country acting by itself.

Thailand is basically playing a "one-man show" on this issue, since there has yet to be strong support from other nations at this point, Dr. Wittayu Sucharithanarak from Chulalongkorn University said in a discussion last week.

As such, the military regime in Burma would not take Thailand's suggestions seriously, some say.

In truth, "we don't really understand the internal political structure in Burma, except through the three Burmese generals led by top general Than Shwe," Supraluk Khunjanahundee of the English-language newspaper 'The Nation' added.

Activists are also trying to make sense of Thai policy following a crackdown in recent months on Burmese groups in Thailand, which is home to thousands of exiles and dissidents from Burma -- apart from one million migrant workers and 100,000 refugees.

Given this backdrop, many exiles fear that this latest plan is no different from the one the junta drew up in 1988, or from the UN envoy to Burma's initiatives, the opposition and the different ethnic groups in Burma.

But Thailand appears to view the situation pragmatically.

For instance, Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra explained that Bangkok was not "interfering" with Rangoon. "But since we are Burma's close neighbor, we should initiate something that leads to the international community's acceptance of developments in Burma."

In an interview with the Chiang Mai-based 'Irrawaddy' magazine, Kobsak Chutikul, vice chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, says the vagueness of the 'road map' is expected but it should provide a "modality, a framework and a process wherein they can express their desires, their wishes."

But those like Htoo Reh, a young Karen member of the anti-Rangoon Democratic Party for a New Society branch in Bangkok, remain apprehensive.

"It is okay that Thailand wants to help bring about change in Burma. But if they really want to help, why do they put so much pressure on the Burmese dissidents in Thailand?" he asked.

Said Daw San San, a 73-year-old veteran from the NLD: "Frankly, I never heard of this road map you're all talking about until a few days ago. I have just arrived from Burma."

She added: "If Thailand wants to help Burma, that's good. Because Burmese people live in darkness. I hope that the road map can be a 'dim light' to show us the way to democracy."

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Albion Monitor August 12, 2003 (

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