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THE decision to free 26 political prisoners belonging to the National League for Democracy redounds to the good sense of Burma’s military rulers at a time when they are struggling to break out of diplomatic isolation. To the extent that the move is tied to the appeal made by the UN human rights envoy Paulo Sergio Pinheiro at the conclusion of his November visit to the country, it has probably achieved its primary objective.

The UN is likely to acknowledge the regime’s gesture by taking steps of its own to reactivate the channels for dialogue. Whether any concrete gains will accrue to either side as a result of these developments, is open to question, though. The reason of course is the status of the National League for Democracy’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who refuses to accept release from house arrest until all her party’s leaders have been released from detention. The Burmese generals unveiled their own version of a roadmap to democracy in August last year and since then have tried to win the backing of both the regional and international community. However, except for an inconclusive conference held in Bangkok towards the end of 2003 to discuss the idea, the roadmap hasn’t made much of an impression on the powers that really matter, namely the United States and the European Union. To be fair to the military regime, Burma has made remarkable progress on its watch in such areas as infrastructure and tourism. Government employees are efficient and red tape is minimal in Burma, a far cry from the bureaucratic sloth that characterises many neighbouring countries. But as long as the generals are unable to work out a modus vivendi with the political opposition, much of this groundwork will remain unutilised. What the UN and the Western aid community need to do is to apply a range of tools to persuade the generals to go back to the barracks while making sure that there is no collapse into lawlessness. The real challenge will be to preserve the positive legacy of military rule while prodding the rulers to take incremental steps towards democracy.

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