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Suu Kyi's Release: Act I in Burma's Drama

The key question now is whether the junta is willing to collaborate with democratic forces in the country

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RELEASED after six years of house arrest, Burma's most famous dissident and democrat, Aung San Suu Kyi, recently threw a tea party in the Burmese capital, Rangoon, for the hordes of reporters in town. She half-jokingly explained that it was a farewell tea, for she fully expected them to leave now that her release was no longer news.

But the real story - Burma's difficult transition to civilian rule - has just begun. On July 10 the Burmese military junta, known as SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council), took a calculated risk. They freed the one person who can destroy them. Ironically, Ms. Suu Kyi is also the only one who can help keep the military relevant within a democratic Burma (also called Myanmar).

Burma's heroine symbolized the Burmese people's yearning for freedom even before she was arrested for voicing the collective aspirations of her silenced compatriots. Her father, Aung San, was the Burmese equivalent of John F. Kennedy and George Washington rolled into one. Gen. Aung San, like Washington, was revered as a founding father of modern Burma after he delivered the country from colonial rule. But he never got to lead the newly independent country. Like JFK, the general was assassinated in the prime of his life.

The release of Suu Kyi has given Burma a second chance. Whether ''the Lady,'' as she is often called, with her combination of brains, grit, pedigree, and charm, can help break the military stranglehold on Burma depends on factors not necessarily within her control. Her release offers hope that the SLORC is not monolithic, and its tight ranks may contain Burmese ''Pinochets'' who can work with the democracy forces to bring back civilian rule.

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