Myanmar Wants 'Smooth Relations' With Suu Kyi

Myanmar activists display an anti-Chinese slogan and portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi.

Myanmar activists display an anti-Chinese slogan and portrait of detained democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi during a demonstration in front of Myanmar embassy in Bangkok on Sunday. Pornchai Kittiwongsakul/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Pornchai Kittiwongsakul/AFP/Getty Images

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Myanmar's junta said Tuesday it hoped for "smooth relations" with detained with pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a day after the military regime suggesting that her release from house was unlikely anytime soon.

China, meanwhile, reiterated its stance that international sanctions would not resolve the crisis in Myanmar, where massive anti-government protests have been met by a violent crackdown from security forces.

The New Light of Myanmar newspaper, a mouthpiece of the junta, printed a brief official announcement on its front page saying that Deputy Labor Minister Aung Kyi had been appointed "minister for relations" to coordinate contacts with Suu Kyi, the country's democracy icon who has been under house arrest for 12 of the past 18 years.

The appointment was suggested by U.N. special envoy Ibrahim Gambari during his visit to Myanmar earlier this month, the statement said. It added that the junta had accepted the idea "in respect of Gambari's recommendation and in view of smooth relations" with Suu Kyi.

The printed statement followed a similar announcement the night before on state radio and television, a move that came amid intense international pressure for the junta to enter talks with Myanmar's democracy movement.

Suu Kyi's party issued a statement Tuesday calling for no preconditions for dialogue with the military junta.

The junta's leaders have offered to meet with Suu Kyi, who is under house arrest, but only on condition she renounce calls for international sanctions against the military regime for its bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protests.

The new official's duties were not detailed, and the announcement did not say when he might meet with the 62-year-old Suu Kyi, a Nobel peace laureate.

It appeared, however, that Aung Kyi would coordinate Suu Kyi's contacts with both the regime and the U.N., which is seeking to end the political deadlock between democracy advocates and a military that has ruled since 1962.

Aung Kyi has a reputation among foreign diplomats, U.N. officials and aid groups as being relatively accessible and reasonable compared to top junta leaders.

But the state-run newspaper suggested in a Monday commentary that Suu Kyi would remain under house arrest until a new constitution was in place - a milestone that diplomats say could take years to achieve.

So far, only the first stage of drawing up guidelines for a new constitution has been completed - a process that took over a decade. The road map process is supposed to culminate in a general election at an unspecified date in the future.

The U.N. envoy's trip to Myanmar came after troops crushed pro-democracy demonstrations with gunfire on Sept. 26 and 27, prompting international condemnation. The regime said 10 people were killed, but dissident groups put the toll at up to 200 and say 6,000 people were detained, including thousands of monks who led the rallies.

While the United States has warned that it would push for U.N. sanctions against Myanmar if it fails to move toward democracy, China has said it is against such action.

"Sanctions or pressure will not help to solve the issue in Myanmar," Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao told a regular news conference in Beijing on Tuesday.

He said China was encouraged that the situation in Myanmar was calmer now. "We hope this momentum can be maintained," he said.

Protests erupted Aug. 19 after the government raised fuel prices, but anger mushroomed into broad-based marches by tens of thousands demanding democratic reforms.

The government has continued to round up suspected activists, although some people have been released.

The current junta came to power after crushing a 1988 pro-democracy uprising by killing as many as 3,000 people. Myanmar's previous constitution was suspended in 1988.

The junta then allowed elections in 1990, but nullified the vote after Suu Kyi's party won.

From NPR reports and The Associated Press

Aung San Suu Kyi Remains Influential in Myanmar

Myanmar democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi

Myanmar democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, shown in this May 2002 file photo, continues to be an influential leader for the pro-democracy movement despite her detention. Stephen Shaver/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Stephen Shaver/AFP/Getty Images

There was an electrifying moment in the Myanmar political crisis last month.

A group of Buddhist monks stopped their protest march at the steel gate of the compound where Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi is under military house arrest. As they chanted the sutra "loving kindness," the diminutive 62-year-old opened the gate and stood in a position of prayer.

"That's when it became clear that the previously religious marches had turned into political opposition," says Priscilla Clapp, who was the chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Yangon from 1999 to 2002.

Clapp says Suu Kyi's influence on the movement is "tremendously powerful," even though the democracy advocate is being held virtually incommunicado in her home. In an apparent acknowledgement of that power, the military allowed a United Nations representative to meet with her on Sept. 30.

The Pro-Democracy Leader's Role

In news reports, Suu Kyi has been described as "prime-minister-elect." In fact, she is not. The confusion arises from an election in 1990, which her party, the National League for Democracy, won decisively, despite vote fraud and intimidation by the military. Suu Kyi, though, was unable to run in that election because she was under house arrest — and she was constitutionally barred from serving as head of state because she was married to a foreigner. In any case, the military rulers nullified the results they didn't like and kept themselves in control.

Clapp, whose position in the country was the equivalent of U.S. ambassador, says Suu Kyi's real strength is as the intellectual leader of the democracy movement. She says that Suu Kyi can work with some members of the military leadership, and that she understands the need for them to maintain security during the transition to democracy. During a brief period when she was able to travel the country in 2002, Suu Kyi focused on citizens' obligations in a democracy, rather than promises of freedom, Clapp says.

Aung San Suu Kyi's Upbringing

Aung San Suu Kyi was born into turbulent Burmese politics in 1945, two years before her father, Gen. Aung San, negotiated Burma's freedom from the British Empire. Just before independence, gunmen burst into a room where Aung San was meeting with his top aides, and massacred them all, leaving nine people dead.

Suu Kyi grew up Rangoon, where her mother, Khin Kyi, was active in the Burmese government. She attended an English-speaking Catholic school, then studied in New Delhi, while her mother was the Burmese ambassador to India. She got her Bachelor of Arts degree from Oxford and obtained her Ph.D. in Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.

Suu Kyi seemed destined for an academic career, especially after she met and married Michael Aris, a British scholar and expert on Tibet. The couple lived and worked in Bhutan and Japan, and had two sons, Alexander and Kim.

Standing Strong Despite Hardships

It wasn't until 1988, when she returned to Rangoon to care for her ailing mother, that Suu Kyi's career as a democracy advocate began.

She came home as a series of student protests was escalating into a widespread uprising against the military government of Gen. Ne Win. Although Win's government fell, the military rulers reorganized themselves and crushed the uprising, reportedly by killing thousands of students, monks and other protestors. The military has denied this, saying that only a few dozen people were killed.

During this period, Suu Kyi helped to organize the National League for Democracy, a movement that was strongly influenced by Mohandas Gandhi's teachings on nonviolent political action. In 1989, the military government placed Suu Kyi under house arrest, but offered to release her if she would agree to leave the country. She refused.

After the military nullified the results of the 1990 election, Suu Kyi garnered widespread attention and support for her cause. She received the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, and in 1991, the Nobel Prize for Peace. The military released her from house arrest in 1995, but made it clear that if she left the country, she would not be allowed to return.

When her husband, Michael Aris, was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1997, she chose not to go to him in Britain, and the Myanmar government refused him a visa to see her. They never saw one another again before he died in 1999.

Except for the brief period in 2002 and 2003 when she was allowed to travel inside the country, Suu Kyi has been held, either in prison or under house arrest. Her detention has been extended year by year, as Myanmar's military rulers realized that her influence had grown, rather than waned. Her recent talks with a U.N. special emissary suggest that she will have to be part of any resolution to the latest crisis.

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