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Monday, 6 May, 2002, 11:06 GMT 12:06 UK
Q&A: Aung San Suu Kyi's release
Burma's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been freed after nearly 20 months under house arrest. BBC News Online examines the issues behind her release.

Why is Aung San Suu Kyi's release important?

Aung San Suu Kyi's release is the first major breakthrough in United Nations sponsored-efforts to resolve years of political deadlock in Burma.

Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy won 1990 elections by a landslide but the military government refused to recognise the result.

But for the last 18 months, the military and Aung San Suu Kyi have been holding secret talks, raising hopes of a reconciliation.

So does this change anything?

It is a big start, but democracy in Burma is still a long way off.

However, it is significant that Aung San Suu Kyi has been released without any restrictions on her movement.

When she was released in 1995 after six years under house arrest, very little changed and she was not allowed to leave the capital Rangoon.

Now she can operate freely and says she will continue to talk to the military government to try to bring political change.

Why have the generals released Aung San Suu Kyi?

Burma has faced international isolation and economic sanctions over its refusal to reform.

Europe, the United States and Japan had all warned that unless there was significant progress, they would be forced to consider isolating the country further and bring in tougher economic sanctions.

Burma is in a prolonged economic crisis and has been trying for some time to break out of its isolation.

Both the US and the EU have signalled their willingness to resume limited humanitarian aid, if the dialogue process yielded concrete results.

How did Burma's problems get so serious?

Burma was a British colony until 1948 when it was one of the world's biggest rice exporters and one of South East Asia's wealthier countries.

But since 1962 it has been ruled by a repressive military regime.

The first military leader, General Ne Win, put in place nominally socialist policies which nationalised the economy and discouraged foreign investment.

By 1988, rice shortages and anger at repression led to street protests which, on 8 August, saw soldiers firing on unarmed crowds and killing thousands.

A month later, a group of generals styling themselves as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) took over and crushed the pro-democracy movement.

What have the peace talks been about?

The talks are believed to have started in October 2000, a month after Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest after trying to travel out of Rangoon.

It was only in January 2001 that the UN envoy to Burma, Razali Ismail, was able to reveal that the talks had in fact got under way. Very few details of the talks have leaked - even now that Aung San Suu Kyi is free.

Most of the meetings have been between Aung San Suu Kyi and a military intelligence liaison officer, though there were rumours in January that Aung San Suu Kyi had met head of state General Than Shwe, the military government's all-powerful leader.

The UN has been pressing the government to make a number of key concessions.

The key concession - Aung San Suu Kyi's release - has now been met.

But the UN also wants freedom for political parties to operate, and moves towards power sharing.

In return, the government is thought to be looking for increased international aid, foreign investment, and a lifting of trade restrictions.

Has Aung San Suu Kyi made any concessions?

Before her release there were reports that Aung San Suu Kyi was preparing to make some concessions herself, in order to ensure a breakthrough.

Nothing has yet materialised, but with talks expected to continue, judging how far she should go will be extremely difficult.

She has always demanded that the government accept the NLD's 1990 election victory, and hand over power.

While some criticise her for being inflexible in that demand, she will face fierce criticism from inside the NLD and from international human rights groups if she is seen to be appeasing the military government by backing down on that demand.

International sanctions are her most powerful bargaining chip in talks with the ruling generals - many Western countries would resume investment and aid if Aung San Suu Kyi said she supported such a move.

What is life like for most Burmese?

For the privileged families and friends of the military government, the past decade has brought increased wealth, imported cars and a property boom.

But for most of the country's 42 million people, life remains difficult.

More than 40% of government spending goes to the military, while health and social programmes suffer.

Inflation has averaged more than 25% and unemployment is very high in the cities. There are regular power cuts and fuel shortages, and import restrictions keep some foreign goods out of the shops.

In rural areas, farmers are forced to sell part of their rice to the government at below-market rates. A UN report estimated that one in three children is undernourished.

If there is a breakthrough, what are the priorities to address?

There are almost too many to list but the international community would be hoping for meaningful political reform.

With no democratic tradition, there are no legal checks on the military government, which has been accused of using policies including torture, rape, political imprisonment and forced labour.

There is also a problem with refugees. Military action against ethnic groups like the Karens, and relocations within Shan State, has forced about 155,000 people into refugee camps in Thailand and Bangladesh.

A further million Burmese live in neighbouring countries but not in refugee camps - including 700,000 in Thailand.

There are also serious problems with drugs and Aids.

Despite government pledges of a crackdown, Burma is one of the world's biggest producers of opium, the base for heroin, and methamphetamines.

Although the figures are unreliable, Burma is itself estimated to have 500,000 heroin addicts. Because of a shortage of needles, they are believed to be spreading the HIV virus which can lead to Aids.

Some health officials warn that Burma is facing an Aids epidemic that could eclipse the worst seen in Africa.

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