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Why is the junta afraid of Suu Kyi?

One step forward, two steps back. That sums up the Myanmar ruling military junta's approach to the peace process, which is expected to restore democracy in the country at some point in the future. The opposition National League for Democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, is an icon of democracy on the world stage. She has been under house arrest for the better part of the last 15 years. Her supporters have calculated that Ms. Suu Kyi has indeed been detained for a period of 10 years since 1989, when she was first arrested. The NLD swept the last general election, which the junta held in 1990 and then promptly annulled. There has been no real movement since then towards a return to democracy. Senior General Than Shwe and his military colleagues continue to rule Myanmar with an iron hand. They have shown scant regard for international public opinion, or even the "friendly counsel" of Southeast Asian neighbours. The international community, tired of imposing sanctions and pressing the generals to have a serious dialogue with Ms. Suu Kyi, has again turned to the Association of South East Asian Nations, of which Myanmar is a member, for turning the screws on the military junta. But this has not worked, as is evidenced by Yangon's decision to give up the Chair of ASEAN's standing committee rather than agree to initiate a dialogue to restore democracy.

In the face of such intransigence, Ms. Suu Kyi, following in the footsteps of Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, has led one of the great non-violent political struggles of our time. A few of the generals, including Prime Minister Khin Nyunt, who favoured a dialogue were removed from power — and also "detained." For over a decade now, the junta has taken cover behind a seemingly interminable process of drafting a new Constitution. A National Convention was established to prepare a draft, but nothing has come out of it. Initially, the Generals wanted to adopt the `Indonesian model' to ensure a social and political role for the military. However, with the collapse of General Suharto in 1998, that model went out of the window. Rather than reconcile themselves to the inevitable and let the people elect a government of their choice, the military rulers are hanging on to power. It was high time the international community, led by ASEAN, stepped up the pressure on Yangon to meet specific targets. It appears there are inhibitions about pushing Myanmar again into a path of isolation and closer to China. Interventionism, which comes up against national sovereignty, deservedly has a bad name on the world stage. But the junta's continued detention of Ms. Suu Kyi, its refusal to take any concrete step towards allowing people to choose their rulers, and its gross human rights violations provide more than sufficient reason to focus international attention in an effective way on Myanmar.

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