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The Lady and the Generals

Rumors spread of Aung San Suu Kyi's possible release

DURING 5-1/2 years under arrest in her elegant home on University Avenue, Aung San Suu Kyi has defied isolation, military generals, and the temptation to compromise on her democratic ideals.

Now Burma's leading political dissident and the winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize faces something new: rumors that she may be released soon.

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The slight, charismatic daughter of Burma's founding father was detained in her Rangoon home in July 1989 after she challenged Burma's military rule and the legitimacy of its long-time strongman, Gen. Ne Win. The regime now appears inclined to release this political martyr who has been able to rally international support and keep alive democratic hopes among many of Burma's 43 million people.

``I just wait for the day she is free,'' says one Rangoon woman, who keeps five albums of photos taken of Ms. Suu Kyi at various public events.

The risk of Suu Kyi stirring up democratic passions may have lessened as the military has tightened its control and opened the economy to allow the elite to prosper. ``My own personal opinion is, if the government can be sure that she is not going to make any trouble, political or otherwise,'' says one government adviser, ``there is no reason why she should not be allowed on the streets.''

But that is a large ``if.'' Her comet-like intrusion into Burma's once-sleepy politics is still fresh in the memory of the military, which has ruled and isolated Burma after a coup in 1962.

Suu Kyi returned to her native land during a 1988 uprising after decades of living abroad. She quickly took command of the opposition, mainly because she is the daughter of Aung San, Burma's independence leader who was assassinated in 1947.

The uprising forced the military to call a parliamentary election, spawning multiple parties, including Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy. When the NLD won handily, the regime ignored the results.

During the election campaign in 1989, however, her popularity reached mythic proportions as she crisscrossed the country. Against the advice of many of her colleagues, she criticized the military openly. According to a US government official, her claim that she alone carried her father's political legacy may have been too much for Ne Win. He had long touted his ties to the late Aung San as a fellow nationalist against British rule.

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The government now wants to resolve the problem of Western opposition to Suu Kyi's detention ``at the lowest possible cost,'' says one diplomat in Rangoon.

Since September, top military leaders have met twice with Suu Kyi in what they call a series of friendly meetings.

The seeds of reconciliation were planted as early as 1992 and in 1994 the first non-family member, United States Rep. Bill Richardson (D) of New Mexico, was permitted to visit her.

Last summer, an intermediary - who played well to a domestic audience - entered the scene: U Rewata Dhamma, a respected Buddhist monk who has been living abroad. Suu Kyi's first meeting with two top generals followed two weeks later.

In January, the term of her house arrest ends. But a senior military official warns that ``if we believe that releasing her will be detrimental to the stability of the country,'' other official reasons can be found to detain her. Chief Justice Aung Toe puts it more succinctly. ``Of course, the government can amend or even annul any law at any time.''

There is much speculation about the terms of her release - whether she will have unrestricted movement or freedom to engage in politics in any way. One thing is already constitutionally clear, however: she will not be able to run for any office. Under guidelines being drafted for a new constitution, a candidate for parliament cannot have an ``allegiance or adherence to a foreign power.'' Since her husband and sons are British - Suu Kyi lived in Britain for nearly 20 years before her return - she would be barred from running.

``People think we're writing the constitution to disqualify Aung San Suu Kyi, but ... this rule was written by her father in the 1947 Constitution,'' says U Aye Maung, director general of the multiparty Democracy Election Commission.

And in fact, he's right: The new constitution would likely disqualify many others, especially those in the opposition whose relatives fled the country.

But the provision may no more block Suu Kyi's influence than did her arrest. ``Aung San Suu Kyi will play an important part in politics with or without the consent of the government. We will always look to her for our direction,'' says a loyal member of her party.

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