by Larry Jagan
In effect, they have turned back the clock to the old days of confrontation by arresting her after a violent clash, placing other key leaders under house arrest, closing most of the offices of her National League for Democracy (NLD) and rounding up hundreds of pro-democracy activists.
"A climate of fear has now descended on Rangoon," said a senior Asian diplomat. "It is reminiscent of the period before the crisis of 1988 -- an economic crisis, political uncertainty and a military crackdown. An all-pervasive atmosphere of uncertainty has now descended over the whole country."
The authorities placed Aung San Suu Kyi in protective custody after a clash last week between her party supporters and pro-government vigilantes during her tour of the north of the country.
Eyewitnesses say the opposition leader was injured during an attack on her car. The window was broken and the shattered glass cut and grazed her face and shoulder. Since then, she has been taken to Rangoon, where she is being held incommunicado in a military camp some 40 kilometers outside the capital.
But the military regime has dismissed these reports. "She is totally unharmed and in no need of medical treatment," Burma's deputy foreign minister Khin Maung Win told diplomats in Rangoon.
But no one is convinced by this, as diplomats and UN officials have tried repeatedly to see her over the past week but without success.
The government has repeatedly claimed that four people were killed in the Friday clash. But reliable eyewitnesses in Burma say more than 60 people actually died. The figure could be higher than that -- 70 or even 80 -- according to the opposition movement across the border in Thailand.
Hundreds of people in the area where the incident took place have been rounded up and are in detention, many others are in hiding, the eyewitnesses say.
"We have grave concerns for the safety of all the people who witnessed the events of Friday night and especially those already in custody, including Aung San Suu Kyi herself," said a senior UN official on condition of anonymity. "We fear their lives are at risk as the government is desperate to cover up the incident."
But this latest crackdown by the Burmese authorities also reflects a broader division within the ruling military over what do with Aung San Suu Kyi.
The hardliners, like the country's top leader, Gen. Than Shwe, are convinced that there is no need to talk to the opposition leader. Other military leaders have begun to believe that time is finally running out.
"Many key generals -- like the military intelligence chief Khin Nyunt -- know the current political deadlock cannot continue much longer without dire consequences for them," said a diplomat in Rangoon.
Many of these military leaders saw the start of the dialogue process more than two years ago as something which could guarantee the army a long-term role in the country's political future. They know that the only way out of this impasse is to talk to Aung San Suu Kyi.
While Gen. Than Shwe has no intentions of starting concrete talks with the opposition leader, many others are desperate for cooperation and dialogue to start. For Than Shwe, releasing Aung San Suu Kyi in May 2002 was an end in itself, not a step toward direct negotiations with her.
It is also becoming clear that Than Shwe's assumption of total political and military power, and the corresponding political stalemate, has created substantial unease among other top generals. They have begun to see that the lack of political progress may endanger their long-term survival.
In the meantime, the "pragmatists" in the military -- those who feel that the situation in Burma cannot continue and change is essential -- are grouped around the intelligence chief Gen. Khin Nyunt and the foreign ministry.
They are telling their Asian counterparts and diplomats in Rangoon that Burma is facing a major crisis in the coming months if there is no political progress in the dialogue process soon.
Aung San Suu Kyi's detention and the crackdown on the opposition seems to be an orchestrated campaign by the hardliners in the army, sources in Rangoon say. "The army has been on alert for more than a week leading up to the violent clash in northern Burma," said a military source in Rangoon.
The hardliners seem to have been looking for an excuse to delay talking to Aung San Suu Kyi and to provide concrete reasons for ignoring the opposition.
This contrasts with recent efforts by military intelligence to restart dialogue with the opposition leader -- at least at a level within the army lower than the top three generals. "The two sides were going to meet after her return from Kachin state," said the NLD spokesman U Lwin.
Burma's junta is now at a crossroads. Aung San Suu Kyi's detention and the crackdown on the National league for Democracy could spell the end of the dialogue process.
"The international community certainly sees this as a sign that the regime is not prepared to bite the bullet and start real political negotiations," a senior diplomat, who has dealt with Burma for many years, said in an interview. "If they don't recant soon, the international community will have no option but to adopt tough economic sanctions."
The rift between the hardliners and pragmatists is growing -- and the current situation has exposed this even further.
The UN envoy Razali Ismail is still going to Burma on Friday. He believes he must go -- even if he does not get access to Suu Kyi. "There should be no reason why I shouldn't," he said on Wednesday, "even when she was under house arrest, I was able to see her twice a trip."
Razali's trip is going to be the litmus test of the regime's commitment to reconciliation and political dialogue. If Razali finds his task on this trip impossible, it may not only be the United States, Europe and the west that take action against Rangoon.
Its neighbors -- especially those in the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) that have stuck to 'constructive engagement' with Burma all these years -- are likely to finally run out of patience with Burma's generals as well.
June 4, 2003 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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