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Burma's new chance

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Saturday, November 13, 2010; 6:35 PM

IT TELLS YOU a lot about Burma that of two ostensibly historic events last week - its first national election in 20 years and the release from house arrest of Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi - the one that captured the world's attention, and has the potential to put the nation on a more positive path, was not the election.

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In turn, it tells you just about everything you need to know about the election that the observer mission was led by North Korean diplomats. Burma (also known as Myanmar), a Southeast Asian nation of 50 million people, is rivaled in Asia only by North Korea for the repressiveness of its regime and the contrast between the wretched poverty of its population and the isolated splendor of its rulers' lives. When the regime allowed a free election in 1990, the overwhelming winner was the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, who even then was under house arrest. The generals ignored the results and jailed many of the winners.

No doubt Burmese leader Than Shwe hoped that last week's election would erase, finally, the memory of that 1990 poll. But the vote was so rigged, it had the opposite effect. Rules were written so that, no matter how people voted, the military would retain control; but even so, the regime could not resist Election Day intimidation and ballot-box stuffing. So it remains as true as ever that the only players with claim to political legitimacy are the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi.

Therefore, her release Saturday from house arrest, where she has spent 15 of the past 21 years, has to be seen as a moment of hope. Whether free or confined, Aung San Suu Kyi has never wavered from her openness to dialogue and her commitment to achieving democracy through nonviolent means. Given her respectful relationship with the nation's ethnic minorities and with the Burmese army - her father was a general and hero of the anti-colonial movement - she is uniquely positioned to help the nation move from authoritarianism to self-rule. She needs only a partner.

Leaders of other nations, who welcomed Aung San Suu Kyi's release Saturday - "She is a hero of mine," President Obama said - can help encourage that partnership. They should make clear that continued repression will be met with increasing financial sanctions and accountability for the regime's crimes against humanity. But they should also make clear that engagement and encouragement are possible if the regime chooses a different path: if, that is, it releases 2,200 other political prisoners, permits citizens to assemble and speak freely, and accepts Aung San Suu Kyi's call for dialogue and reform.


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