From Bad to Worse

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The gloves are off in Burma. For two years, the generals who rule the country have allowed a modicum of freedom to the leaders of the National League for Democracy—Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition party—even while arresting and intimidating its rank-and-file. Last week, after the latest face-off with the popular dissident, the junta withdrew even those few freedoms and has turned its wrath upon those leaders. Troops have been deployed around the homes of Suu Kyi and eight other executives of her embattled party. They cannot go out, their phone lines have been cut and all visitors have been turned back, including the British ambassador, who reports being manhandled by military police on Sept. 2. According to the government, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and her colleagues have been requested to remain at home, but are not under house arrest. However one defines things, says Teddy Buri, an nld member living in exile in Thailand, it's the worst situation we've faced since 1989.Back then, the generals confined Suu Kyi to her creaky, monsoon-streaked house for what would amount to six years—and sent thousands of other party members to prison. This time around, the junta insists the detentions are only temporary. They began Sept. 2, when some 200 troops dragged Suu Kyi and 14 of her followers back to their homes after they attempted to leave Rangoon to meet party members, forcing a nine-day standoff beside a suburban road. Soldiers also closed down the nld's headquarters and seized party documents. Officials say Suu Kyi and her colleagues must remain under wraps while Rangoon investigates the nld's alleged links to terrorist groups. While independent observers dismiss such accusations as crude and far-fetched, Buri warns that if the international community doesn't raise a more concerted protest, the military may feel it can keep them as long as it likes. So far, however, sentiment in Western capitals has been moving in the opposite direction. The regime's repressive measures have been so constant that crackdown fatigue seems to have set in among its usual critics. Few have spoken out even though many more nld members have been arrested or forced to resign in the past two years. Suu Kyi's detention has provoked a sharper response. But some nations appear nonetheless to be reconsidering the hard-line stance they have adopted toward the junta. In the U.S., business lobbies are pressing Washington to repeal sanctions on new investment in Burma. Australia has already expanded contacts with the regime. In the European Union, which has barred all aid to Burma except that which would promote democracy and human rights, France, Italy and Germany are arguing for a more lenient attitude toward the generals. (Britain and the Scandinavian countries are opposed to the shift.)The lack of unity partly reflects disagreement over whether punitive measures are effective. Sanctions just aren't working, concludes a Rangoon-based European diplomat. nld executive Nyunt Wai argues, however, that the West should continue its hard line. If sanctions have had no effect, why is the military yelling about them all the time? said Nyunt Wai shortly before his confinement. And even if sticks haven't worked, neither have carrots. A year ago, Western governments were cautiously optimistic that they could tempt the regime to loosen its grip on power. Representatives of several nations quietly offered $1 billion in aid if the junta would allow significant political freedoms. The generals rejected the money, saying they couldn't be bought. More than a decade of constructive engagement by Asian countries has similarly failed to promote change. The debate over which approach is most effective will be played out in several forums. This month, the U.N. will debate an annual resolution condemning Burma's human rights abuses. Democracy activists plan to press the U.N. to strip the military government of its General Assembly seat. The International Labor Organization may impose sanctions on the regime later this year because of its use of forced labor. And Thailand's Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuwan has warned that a December meeting between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the European Union—already delayed for more than two years because of the E.U.'s refusal to meet with Burmese officials—could be scuttled because of the latest crackdown. The European nations that advocate a new approach say Suu Kyi's detention hasn't altered their view—yet. If the military holds her too long, we may have to rethink our position, says the European diplomat. They will only be hurting themselves. But according to Josef Silverstein, a Burma expert at Rutgers University, the junta isn't likely to engage in serious reform until it undergoes a leadership shakeout, which could possibly take place during the annual military reshuffle in November. The new guard may be willing to make a deal with Suu Kyi and the nld to shore up support in the West, Silverstein says. But with the nld leaders under the gun, any deal the generals might offer will be strictly on their own terms.