Nov 13, 2007

Burma: Junta Diversionary Tactics?

Opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, met with members of her party, showing positive signs for the negotiations talks with the government, despite opposition raising suspicions over the genuine intentions of the junta.

Opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, met with members of her party, showing positive signs for the negotiations talks with the government, despite some opposition raising suspicions concerning the genuine intentions of the junta.

Below is an article published by Jarry Lang from Asia Times Online:

Tentative talks in Myanmar between pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the country's military rulers have raised hopes in some quarters of a possible political breakthrough. At the same time diplomats and others believe the only tentative move towards dialogue is the latest of a long string of diversionary tactics by the junta to deflect international criticism and maintain its iron-clad grip on power.

The detained opposition leader, who has spent 12 of the past 18 years under house arrest, met Labor Minister Aung Gyi on Friday [09 November 2007, representing the second meeting between the two since his appointment last month as the government's so-called liaison minister and since the September [2007] crackdown by the army on peaceful demonstrations led by Buddhist monks.

More significantly, Suu Kyi was allowed to meet key members of her National League for Democracy (NLD) party for the first time in more than three years, raising new hopes among the party's faithful members. "If the talks go well, she may be released soon," a spokesman for her party told journalists on the weekend.

The gesture notably came immediately after the latest visit to Myanmar by the United Nations secretary general's special advisor to the country, Ibrahim Gambari. Yet diplomats in Yangon contend the visit was not instrumental in bringing about any substantive new initiatives, but rather was a way for the regime to deflect international pressure to introduce political change.

"It is too early to tell whether the top generals are serious about political dialogue with the opposition or whether as I fear they are just using this to buy time while they press on with their own roadmap, which will effectively exclude Aung San Suu Kyi and her party from politics in the future," a Western diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The crucial change that Gambari was able to achieve was that through him Suu Kyi was for the first time in years able to have her views heard. "In the interest of the nation, I stand ready to cooperate with the government in order to make this process of dialogue a success and welcome the necessary good offices role of the UN to help facilitate our efforts in this regard," she said in a letter to Gambari, which he made public at the end of his trip. "I am committed to pursue the path of dialogue constructively and invite the government and all relevant parties to join me in this spirit," she appealed in the letter.

There was notably no reference to any precondition for such talks. Immediately after Gambari's previous visit to Myanmar at the end of September [2007], junta leader General Than Shwe had announced his willingness to meet the opposition leader, provided she was prepared to end "confrontation", her public support for Western-led sanctions, and the "utter devastation" of the country.

Those conditions are a non-starter to some members of the opposition, however. "These pre-conditions are unacceptable as it is tantamount to admitting guilty to charges which are totally unfounded, just to meet Than Shwe," a leading NLD member said, but declined to be identified.

Suu Kyi's position has long been that everything is negotiable, provided there are genuine political talks between the military regime and pro-democracy parties. Although she did not spell this out in her letter, it is something which remains the bedrock of her position. She has also made clear that she regards Myanmar's various ethnic groups as an essential part of any dialogue process.

That's why some view optimistically the two meetings between the labor minister Aung Gyi and Suu Kyi in recent weeks, which they hope could be part of a new process that leads to fresh talks between the NLD and the military government. "These are pre-talks rather than the start of a serious dialogue process," independent Myanmar analyst Win Min, based at Chiang Mai University in northern Thailand, warned. "But in any negotiation, both sides have to show goodwill - so far that seems to be happening," he added.

The release of several hundred political prisoners last week and the meeting between the top four NLD leaders and Suu Kyi are clearly confidence-building measures. This was something Gambari stressed should be part of the process when he offered the UN's services to help facilitate dialogue between the two sides, according to UN insiders.

It's not an entirely new idea, however. Former UN envoy Razali Ismail, who resigned from his role in January 2005, put forward a series of confidence-building measures when he tried to broker talks between Suu Kyi and the generals when she was held previously under house arrest and before May 2002 when she was temporarily released.

Of course, the UN is keen to present Gambari's visit as a success in starting a process that could lead to a genuine political dialogue. "We now have a process going which will lead to substantive dialogue between the government and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as a key instrument in promoting national reconciliation in an all-inclusive manner," said a UN statement at the end of Gambari's visit.

Privately, however, UN officials admit his visit was anything but a success. Gambari remained a virtual prisoner in the new Myanmar capital Naypyitaw, situated 400 kilometers north of the previous capital Yangon. He spent only a few hours in Yangon, from where he entered and exited the country. "The regime kept him there because they feared his presence in [Yangon] might spark fresh protests," a Bangkok-based diplomat who covers Myanmar said.

To add insult to injury, Gambari met very few members of the government - and notably none of its top leaders. "Than Shwe did not want to see Gambari and used his usual delaying tactic - using low-ranking ministers as shields to avoid meeting him," said Win Min, the academic.

In fact, they made their position crystal clear when Information Minister Brigadier General Kyaw Hsan attacked him in the state-run media after their meeting in Naypyitaw early last week. He even accused Gambari of being superficial and ignorant of Myanmar history and culture, and worse of being a stooge of the Western powers that wanted to interfere in Myanmar's internal affairs.

Kyaw Hsan was particularly upset by the UN envoy's suggestion that they should start three-way talks with Suu Kyi and Gambari as mediator. "Myanmar will never allow any outside interference to infringe on the sovereignty of the state," he was quoted as saying on state-run television. If Gambari really wanted to help Myanmar, "he should play a leading role in organizing and persuading others to relieve and lift sanctions," he demanded.

Such statements suggest that the skeptics are right, that the contact and talks with Suu Kyi are a mere side-show intended to buy the regime time. "While putting energy into the democratization process, the government has been making efforts for the national reconsolidation," said the lead story in Saturday's edition of the government mouthpiece newspaper, The New Light of Myanmar. The paper also reported the meetings between Suu Kyi and Aung Gyi, and her meetings with members of the NLD party.

These are just a few of the signs that the top generals are not genuinely interested in the international community's efforts to encourage democratic change and are intent on following through on their plans to introduce a political system that will consolidate the military's power in the future.

"Than Shwe and his hardline supporters have no intentions of including Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD in talks about [Myanmar's] political future. They are pressing on with their own road map and are certainly not interested in having any UN involvement," a source close to the Myanmar government said on condition of anonymity. 

He said the junta wants to finish drafting the new constitution, which effectively will legitimize its grasp on political power, and hold a national referendum on the charter by early next year. The Myanmar government also wants the summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) leaders endorse it in Singapore in two weeks' time, the government source said.

Myanmar controversially joined the 10-member regional grouping in 1997. Some ASEAN members made critical statements about the junta after September's crackdown, but the grouping has failed to take a unified approach in censuring the junta. "The only issue open for discussion with Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy parties and ethnic groups would be the acceptance of the constitution and support for the planned referendum," said an Asian diplomat based in Yangon.