Marwaan Macan-Markar

Reacting to growing international pressure Burma’s military regime has said it will consider releasing the pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest in six months. That verbal assurance by Burmese foreign minister Nyan Win was made Sunday, at the opening of the foreign ministers’ meeting of the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN). It was confirmed by Singapore foreign minister George Yeo, host of the 10-member bloc’s 41st ministerial meeting being held in the city-state this week.

But such a gesture of conciliation — the first by a Burmese minister, where a specific timetable for Suu Kyi’s freedom has been spelled out — has been received with more scepticism than praise. For the military rulers in Burma, or Myanmar, have a notorious record of sounding soft and appearing to compromise when they are under political heat from regional governments and beyond.

Even Nyan Win’s attempt to give the amnesty announcement a veneer of legal authenticity is being dismissed by former political prisoners. He is reported to have said that Suu Kyi’s current period under house arrest will reach its six-year limit in six months.

“These statements are not based on sincerity. The military regime wants to reduce the international pressure so it is using the release of Daw Suu Kyi as a ploy,” says Bo Kyi, a former Burmese political prisoner and a leading member of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Burma (AAPP). “They have made similar promises before.”

The legal limit to hold a political prisoner is five years, he added. “If they are serious, they should release her now. Why wait? The minister’s announcement is not based on the law.” Suu Kyi, who leads the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party, has spent more than 12 of the past 18 years under house arrest in her dilapidated family home in Rangoon. The Nobel Peace laureate began her current stretch in detention in May 2003.

ASEAN ministers were clearly in no mood to let this status quo prevail. A strong statement released by the group noted its “deep disappointment” in the junta’s decision to extend Suu Kyi’s detention for a sixth year in late May, and said that the junta should demonstrate real measures to move the country “toward a peaceful transition to democracy in the near future”.

“The international community is still suspicious of the military regime. They are not sure if the regime will be sincere in the rehabilitation phase,” says Soe Aung, spokesman for the National

Council of the Union of Burma, a network of Burmese political groups living in exile. “ASEAN’s statement reflects this. It is a way of using the situation to apply some pressure,” he explained. “The military regime’s offer of freedom for Suu Kyi is also due to this lack of funds. The regime is hoping to gain some sympathy and money.”

An ASEAN and UN report revealed Monday that Burma will need one billion dollars to rebuild the devastated parts of the country over the next three years. “ASEAN’s leaders are slowly understanding that they cannot be made fools by the Burmese regime,” Debbie Stothard of ALTSEAN, a regional human rights lobby, said. “Cyclone Nargis has provided an opening for the regional leaders and the international community to engage with the regime differently than before.”