MENTION AUNG SAN SUU KYI in the lobby of a five-star hotel in Yangon, or in a humble roadside teashop, and the conversation immediately stops. The locals look nervously over their shoulders, lower their voices and then praise her. 'She is our only hope. But the generals are standing between her and us,' said a young teacher dressed in a wraparound skirt and blouse as she haggled over the price of chicken wings in the capital's bustling Scot market. 'We have waited for far too long and we still don't know when our ordeal will come to an end.' For years Myanmar has yearned for a saviour, someone to deliver them from human rights abuses, rampant corruption, a rapidly deteriorating economy, galloping inflation, rising unemployment and the growing threat posed by Aids, drugs and malaria. Hopes soared in May last year when the military rulers suddenly freed the charismatic 57-year-old Nobel Peace Prize winner from house arrest. They hinted at an early power-sharing compromise which would pave the way for national elections and a democratic government in the impoverished country of 50 million people. But the generals have not yielded a centimetre since then. The government, which refers to itself as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), has stubbornly refused to engage in any meaningful dialogue with the democracy leader despite prodding from many quarters. Malaysian diplomat Razali Ismail, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's special envoy to Myanmar, has issued several reminders to the SPDC to start negotiations. Diplomats, academics and political analysts in Yangon say that instead of loosening its grip, the military government has in fact tightened its control since releasing Ms Suu Kyi - a move which was then warmly welcomed by the international community as a sign that the junta was finally ready for long-awaited, sweeping political reform. But today, like the ordinary people of Myanmar, seasoned observers and advocates of civilian supremacy also lament that their hopes have been badly crushed. Ms Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party are still trapped in the political wilderness, and the much-hyped national reconciliation talks between the generals and the NLD to usher in multi-party democracy remain a distant dream. To the outside world, Ms Suu Kyi symbolises Myanmar's fight for freedom and democracy, but within her own country she is the invisible woman. Her photograph does not appear in newspapers or magazines. State-run radio and TV are forbidden to mention her name. Even in private conversation, her name is uttered only in hushed tones. 'When I was released, it was agreed between the authorities and ourselves that ... we should go on to a more advanced stage of our relationship. But I do not think there has been any progress. In fact, I think there has been some kind of regression', Ms Suu Kyi said angrily when asked to sum up her thoughts just before the first anniversary of her release. In another scathing attack last week on the ruthless generals who are refusing to give up power, she said: 'It is not power that corrupts, but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts'. Ms Suu Kyi can now move around freely in the country. But she is followed by hundreds of military men wherever she goes. Above all, she is not allowed to address public meetings. She tried twice to defy the curbs but on both occasions the authorities promptly used loudspeakers to drown out her voice. On another occasion, fire engines were deployed to scatter her flock. But despite obstructions, she has undertaken seven trips outside the capital since her release, and reopened nearly a 100 party offices, according to her spokesman, L. Lwin. To celebrate one year of relative freedom, this week she set off on a month-long political trip to the restive north, accompanied by her vice-chairman, U Tin Oo, and 12 men from the party's youth wing who serve as her personal security detail. Analysts say that while Ms Suu Kyi is free to travel and reorganise the NLD, the people of Myanmar are no nearer to exercising their right to vote. But a government statement last Sunday claimed that the SPDC was striving hard to 'to move Myanmar closer to multi-party democracy and national reconciliation', and cited the release of NLD detainees as proof of its sincerity. The statement also said that the government had no desire to suppress political expression and wanted a 'safe, sound and successful' democratic transition. The military has ruled Myanmar since 1962, but in 1990, after years of suppressing calls for change, it allowed elections. The NLD, led by Ms Suu Kyi won the elections overwhelmingly, winning 392 out of 485 seats, including constituencies where the armed forces and their families decided the outcome of the polls. But the military reneged on its agreement to allow the winners to form a government and annulled the results. The junta shoved Ms Suu Kyi aside, ignoring international calls to hand over power to her. Ms Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her commitment to bring about non-violent change in Myanmar. But this international recognition only made her seem more dangerous in the eyes of the ruling generals. Her movement was severely restricted and thousands of NLD members were jailed without trial. She was repeatedly put under house arrest. Her release last year after 20 months of confinement followed secret parleys between SPDC and Mr Annan's special envoy. But there has been no progress whatsoever since Mr Ismail secured her freedom of movement, and patience is wearing thin, particularly among the country's youth. According to a Yangon-based British diplomat, Senior General Than Shwe, prime minister and chairman of the all-powerful SPDC, is the biggest stumbling block to resolving the 13-year-old deadlock in Myanmar. The diplomat said that the general, who is an expert in psychological warfare, has categorically ruled out any talks with Ms Suu Kyi during his lifetime. The junta's chief is even believed to have vetoed a proposal by the military intelligence head, General Khin Nyunt, to remove the roadblocks on either side of Ms Suu Kyi's sprawling villa at 54 University Avenue in Yangon. Interestingly, some specialists regard General Nyunt and SPDC vice-chairman, Maung Ave as 'liberals' in army uniform. Besides the top triumvirate, the other key figures are Lieutenant-General Thura Shwe Mann and Lieutenant-General Soe Win. Brigadier Than Tun, who liaises with Ms Suu Kyi on behalf of the junta, is known to enjoy General Shwe's confidence. 'As long as General Shwe is in command, there is no scope of a breakthrough', the diplomat said. 'Myanmar today is very much like Zimbabwe - there is no hope as long as Robert Mugabe is around. There is no chance of anything resembling democracy being established in Myanmar during General Shwe's lifetime.' According to the diplomat, Ms Suu Kyi's freedom from house arrest and the lifting of travel restrictions was a much-hyped 'psychological game' played by General Shwe to 'con' the US and the West into accepting the junta without insisting on real political reform. Other diplomats said that the totalitarian SPDC had no intention of transferring power to the NLD. An Indian foreign service officer who was posted in Moscow before the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and is now based in Yangon, said that present-day Myanmar is far more repressive and oppressive than even Stalinist Russia. Spies and informers abound in the police state. Human intelligence is the forte of the dreaded secret service. All embassies are closely monitored. An Australian diplomat had her telephone line cut for a week because the military intelligence eavesdropped on her conversations with a human rights group and did not like what they heard. A regional specialist said that the military government was sitting pretty despite being shunned by the west and subjected to economic sanctions. The main sources of this comfort are China and India, which provide virtually unqualified support to the junta, and the solidarity showed by smaller neighbours like Thailand, Malaysia and Bangladesh. And, mysteriously enough, the junta has excellent relations with North Korea, Russia, Israel and Pakistan. The junta's relationship with China is in a class by itself. Both countries describe their friendship as 'paukphaw', or fraternal - a form of close brotherhood between equals. But Yangon has also perfected the diplomatic art of playing off China against India, and vice-versa. It has also used the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to its advantage, particularly for strengthening trade and political ties with the European Union. Democratic India was a great champion of Ms Suu Kyi from 1987 to 1993. India honoured her with the prestigious Nehru Peace Prize even before she received the Nobel prize and the state-run All India Radio launched a Burmese language service to help her campaign. But India suddenly dumped her, citing its 'national interests'. Ms Suu Kyi's passionate appeals not to desert her fell on deaf ears. India justified its about-face on the grounds that it desperately needed Myanmar's help to fight insurgent groups in the northeast and smash drug cartels. But India's real worry was Myanmar's growing military ties with China. It sacrificed Ms Suu Kyi in order to snuggle closer to the generals in an attempt to counter China's influence. 'It's a pity that the generals haven't learnt a lesson from the Chinese in running the country', another diplomat said. 'The Chinese Communist Party used the army to stay in power but did not allow the armed forces to administer the country. While China is governed very professionally by bureaucrats and technocrats, all key ministerial and administrative positions in Myanmar are held by army officers who know nothing about governance. And hence the all-pervasive mess.' According to the diplomatic grapevine, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad gave his honest opinion on the state of affairs in Myanmar, during a state visit to Yangon last year. 'The management of your country is worse than the management of the worst country in Africa', Mr Mahathir told General Shwe. Mr Mahathir, a known supporter of the junta, apparently made the scathing remarks after a few Malaysian investors close to him were ripped off by army commanders in Myanmar. Sadly enough, the junta has deliberately kept Myanmar in the early 20th century simply to hold on to power. An average Myanmar home does not have a telephone, television or refrigerator. The communication revolution seems to have bypassed the country - mobile telephones, satellite dishes, cable TV and Internet surfing are only for the elite. Passports are as rare as gold dust, and contact with the outside world is limited to the foreigners, mostly Chinese traders. The average monthly income of a professional worker - teacher, university professor or government official - is still as low as 10,000 kyat (HK$78). Analysts say that the generals' arrogance and disregard for democracy stem from their 500,000-strong army - by far too big considering that the economy is in a shambles and Myanmar has no external enemies to contend with. The junta was on a shopping spree last year, purchasing battle tanks, armoured carriers, surface-to-air missiles and Soviet MiG fighters. According to latest reports, it is eyeing submarines, and by its own admission, has signed a deal with Russia for a nuclear reactor. According to the Brussels-based think-tank, International Crisis Group, Myanmar's armed forces continue to see themselves as the ultimate arbiters of power in the country and the generals are terrified of the prospect of any change. They ignore assurances by Ms Suu Kyi that the armed forces will still have a 'central role' in a civilian administration. But perhaps they believe that Ms Suu Kyi is useful; while she is around, refusing to consent to violence, an armed uprising, or people's revolt is unlikely.