AS Burma ready for democracy? Wherever oppression reigns, one of the oppressors' first excuses is that because of historical, economic, or social circumstances, the people are not fit for direct elections or a choice of parties.
Burma is no exception. But today, there's a sliver of hope that the military junta ruling the country is becoming a touch less repressive. Last weekend, Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and symbol of the struggle for democracy and human rights, was reunited with her family for the first time in over two years. She remains under house arrest in her Rangoon home, but a number of other political prisoners, including former Prime Minister U Nu, have been released.
Gen. Saw Maung has been replaced as leader of the junta by Gen. Than Shwe, his deputy. Government officials are talking about drafting a constitution that would satisfy ethnic minorities such as the Karens, who have been fighting for self-rule since soon after Burma became independent in 1948.
Burmese inside and outside the country are understandably cautious. Asia Watch, the human rights organization, has just published a well-documented report on torture, rape, and killings of Muslim minority peasants in the eastern province of Arakan, perpetrated by Burmese soldiers and officers.
Furthermore, it is not yet clear to what extent the junta's leadership has really changed, whether security chief Khin Nyunt continues to mastermind the junta's policies, and what influence is exercised by ostensibly retired, long-time ruler Ne Win.
But the international community's political and economic ostracism of the Burmese regime is beginning to tell. This ostracism does not go as far as an explicit, across-the-board trade embargo, and two important neighbors, China and Thailand, continue to trade extensively with Rangoon. China has supplied $1.2 billion in arms, and Thailand exploits valuable teak concessions in Burma. Both countries are conduits for the drug traffic originating in the poppy fields of Burma's Shan region.
Nevertheless, the regime is close to being an international pariah, and must weigh the cost of its brutal internal policies in terms of sharply limited access to international aid and markets.
The junta's new leadership is said to be pragmatic. Will this pragmatism go so far as to release Ms. Suu Kyi - the one move that would impress the international community more than any other? The generals know they cannot let Suu Kyi go without unmuzzling her and letting her remain in the country. Those closest to her say she would not agree to any other condition.
Nearly three years after the junta isolated her within her own house, and nearly two years since it forced her British husband and two sons to leave the country, Suu Kyi's charisma is undiminished, and her ringing affirmation, "It is not power that corrupts, but fear" seems prophetic.
In her essay, "In Quest of Democracy," Suu Kyi draws on her months of tramping across the villages of Burma to insist that although ordinary Burmese may have little experience of democracy as a social system, they are hungry for "such basic ideas as representative government, human rights, and the rule of law."
The Burmese may be poor today after decades of military mismanagement, but they are rich in human resources: In their tradition the village school is as valued an institution as is the Buddhist temple. Nor did the Burmese ever believe in the divine right of kings, Suu Kyi maintains. The traditional "ten duties of kings" include non-opposition to the will of the people.
To hasten Suu Kyi's release and the restoration of democracy to Burma, the international community must maintain and strengthen its political and economic isolation of Burma. It should eliminate loopholes such as continuing economic aid from Japan or oil-exploring concessions granted to American and other companies. The most glaring loopholes - trade with China and Thailand - should be taken up directly with those countries.
Some day Burma will be free - there is no question about that.On that day, the international community should be able to take pride in saying, "Our help counted."