The Vise Tightens on Burma

The military government of Burma, which calls itself Myanmar, is coming under the heaviest pressure yet to release opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from nearly two months of detention in Rangoon. President Bush is soon expected to sign the Burmese Freedom & Democracy Act of 2003, which bans Burmese garment exports to the U.S. worth $356 million and freezes the junta's assets at U.S. financial institutions around the world. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is also threatening to have Burma expelled from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

It's unclear how the junta will respond. The generals have mismanaged the economy since they seized power in 1988, so sanctions may not have much effect. Moreover, they are afraid of Suu Kyi, 58, the daughter of Burma's founding father. She was elected to the country's still-nonexistent national assembly in a poll that her party, the National League for Democracy, won by a landslide in 1990.

Rather than recognizing her victory, the junta held her under various forms of detention intermittently, finally releasing her in May, 2002. They arrested her again on May 30. Her popularity had soared after a financial crisis spurred a run on commercial banks. Diplomats say the generals are now seeking a face-saving compromise. On July 23 the junta said it had released 91 political prisoners, all supposedly supporters of Suu Kyi's party. If the opposition leader herself isn't freed, the economic pain for Burma's 50 million people is set to worsen.

By Michael Shari in Singapore

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