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Fragile hope for Myanmar after Suu Kyi release

Myanmar’s military leaders continue to rule with an iron fist

(Keystone Archive)

Swiss aid workers in Myanmar say the release of pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, does not mean the country is moving towards democracy.

Suu Kyi's release on Monday after 19 months of house arrest is being seen as a definite sign that one of the world's most repressive regimes is slowly loosening its grip.

However, Glen Hill, coordinator of Swissaid projects in Myanmar, told swissinfo that the move was not tantamount to a shift towards democracy.

"The release is a good indicator for the future, but it's not an indicator of the pace of political progress. I still believe it'll be one step at a time," Hill said.

He added that Suu Kyi's release would offer some hope to the people of Myanmar, which the United Nations has described as a massive labour camp. "She's a popular figure. They feel happy that some of the burden has been lifted off their shoulders."

Iron fist

The military junta has run the country with an iron fist since 1990, when it refused to hand over power to Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy, following a general election.

She was placed her under house arrest for six years, released in 1995, and then re-arrested in September 2000.

Her release this week came after months of negotiations between the United Nations and the junta, which started shortly after Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, also in September 2000.

"Change inevitable"

One of the intermediaries in the talks, Léon de Riedmatten, said Suu Kyi's release was part of an "inevitable process of change" of political reform in the country.

De Riedmatten is the Swiss head of the Henry Dunant Centre for humanitarian dialogue, who coordinated visits by UN officials to Myanmar.

He added that "the authorities will be watching closely to see how Suu Kyi uses her freedom of movement and speech. After that, the two sides will be able to hold detailed talks about the country's future."

So far, there have been few indications that the junta, which has ruled Myanmar since 1962, was willing to offer Suu Kyi a role in government. Many observers believe that Myanmar's military ruler, Than She, is prepared to offer only limited political reform, in return for an end to international sanctions.

Shortly after her release on Monday, Suu Kyi said her freedom did not represent a major breakthrough for democracy. "For all the people in Burma to enjoy basic freedom - that would be the major breakthrough," she said.

Popular support

Hill said Suu Kyi enjoyed widespread popular support in Myanmar, where the population had to endure tough economic and social conditions, with high rates of inflation on basic goods and poor medical healthcare.

"I think there'll be a lot of support for Suu Kyi and her party, especially in central and lower Myanmar. But it's very diverse country, and there are a lot of ethnic nationality groups waiting and watching to see what this may mean for their situation.

"I hope that the international community will allow the people the space to continue this political dialogue at their own pace and in their own time," Hill continued.

Swissaid is engaged in community development projects in rural parts of Myanmar, focusing on farming techniques and land and food security.

By Jonathan Summerton and Vanessa Mock

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