Reluctant democrat

Published : Feb 29, 2008 00:00 IST

Than Shwe runs out of options to defer democracy even as Aung San Suu Kyi raises the stakes for a negotiated settlement.

in SingaporeAung San Suu Kyi

Myanmars long-surviving military junta has, after having successfully asserted its sense of self-importance as a sovereign but intransigent player at a regional summit in Singapore last November, begun to run out of options to defer democracy at home for an indefinite period.

Not that the junta, which styles itself rather grandiloquently as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), is facing a new wave of popular uprising. Yet, the countrys military strongman, Senior General Than Shwe, in his plenipotentiary position, is up against a new reality in his unwilling but inexorable march towards a day of democratic reckoning.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the democracy campaigner with her worldwide iconic image as a long-incarcerated Nobel Peace laureate, got a rare chance on January 30 to publicise her new initiative within the framework of an ongoing dialogue process. The junta had initiated this process, at the behest of a suddenly proactive United Nations, after failing to black out a stunning outburst of popular anger, which was articulated through remarkably peaceful waves of street marches day after day in late September last year. The SPDC did quell the revolt through indiscriminate use of force, which resulted in the death of a number of peaceful protesters; the actual toll is not yet acknowledged officially. But the spirit of that revolt is a living reality.

The juntas crackdown on those protesters Buddhist monks, students, new political activists and members of Suu Kyis National League for Democracy (NLD) might have, in a sense, pushed an emerging revolution into a tactical recess. The democratic cause, however, remains in focus even now. It is in this context that she conveyed a no-nonsense message to the junta sometime in January.

The crux of the message is that the junta should initiate unconditional, substantive and time-specific talks with her at the highest political level. Than Shwe, who is known to hate the very idea of direct parleys with Suu Kyi, has now been asked to engage in precisely such talks. Her ongoing spell of house arrest continues to shock the conscience of the international community.

At the height of the protest marches last year, Suu Kyi became the silent but powerful patron-saint of the movement, even as a group of Buddhist monks made its way to her Yangon residence, for long the seat of her house arrest. She greeted the monks at the gate, the dividing line between her incarceration and personal freedom, and they dispersed after chanting prayers and acknowledging her unspoken but inspiring support. In a sense, it was this aspect of her unusual intervention that reminded the junta of Suu Kyis undying relevance to the democracy movement in Myanmar. Unsurprisingly thereafter, as U.N. Secretary Generals Special Envoy Ibrahim Gambari brought the moral pressure of the world body to bear on the junta last October, Than Shwe, who was until then averse to even uttering her name, agreed to start a dialogue process. Soon, he appointed a liaison officer to engage Suu Kyi.

When the SPDC allowed her to meet the members of NLDs central executive committee at a designated place in Yangon on January 30, the liaison officer had already met her four times in as many months. However, neither the NLD nor the United States, the most vocal but by no means a particularly earnest or effective advocate of democracy in Myanmar, was at that time aware of the usefulness of the liaison officers exercise in intra-state diplomacy. The international community was generally dismissive of Than Shwes appointment of a liaison officer as no more than an empty gesture designed to diminish the external pressure on the junta to solve the issues arising out of its constant refusal to give up power and let the people have a government of their choice. To be mindful of these realities at the time Suu Kyi met her NLD associates on January 30 is not to gloss over Than Shwes long-lasting intransigence, though.

Suu Kyi told her NLD associates that she had asked the liaison officer to convey her message to Than Shwe that he should facilitate dialogue at the highest political level so that the process could be carried forward.

U Nyan Win, NLD spokesperson, told this correspondent over telephone from Yangon shortly after Suu Kyis meeting with the partys central executive committee that her proposal, in essence, was that she should meet the decision-maker, the policymaker for any substantive progress in the ongoing dialogue process. According to Nyan Win, she had made it clear to the SPDC that these talks should take place as a time-bound exercise with no prior conditions from both sides.

The SPDCs response was not known, he said. And it was clear that Suu Kyi, seeing no possibility of a breakthrough in her talks with the designated liaison officer with no real authority to negotiate a settlement, wanted to sort out issues in direct parleys with Than Shwe himself. The reference to the decision-maker is but the NLDs political code for Than Shwe, who is not really recognised by the party as a legitimate ruler of Myanmar.

In a sense, Suu Kyis new initiative, which is designed to test the SPDCs real game plan in having initiated the ongoing low-level dialogue with her, is no less aimed at quickening the pace of a negotiated settlement of the basic democracy issue. The political context of her initiative is as important as its substance.

Monks protesting against

For some time before Suu Kyi raised the stakes through her initiative, the SPDC had been settling down to its business-as-usual routine brutal this time, in the sense that the junta was beginning to behave as if no protest for political and economic justice had rocked that nation last year. The irony was that the SPDC had then felt compelled to bow to U.N. pressure even after quelling the protest by what the world body later saw as an excessive use of force against unarmed citizens of the country.

The importance of Suu Kyis initiative is also heightened by the fact that the SPDC had, after letting the U.N. have a say over Myanmars internal affairs, flatly refused to allow the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) a similar or even a fraternal say. Myanmar is a member of the 10-nation ASEAN. At the Singapore ASEAN summit last November, Myanmar bluntly told other member-states that they should steer clear of its internal affairs. After much deliberation, the ASEAN, under the able leadership of Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, let Myanmar go its way. But, in the process, the ASEAN did not minimise either the importance of the democracy issue in Myanmar or the importance of Myanmar itself as an issue before the regional forum.

The SPDC, though, saw its triumph at the last ASEAN summit as a matter of decisive freedom from the intrusive attitude of the regional forum with a somewhat limited range of concerns and capabilities. And, Than Shwe obviously convinced himself that the U.N., with far more concerns from across the world, should be relatively easier to deal with. At the U.N., he could, in his political calculus, count on the support of friends such as China and Russia, even if the U.S. were to try and pressure Myanmar on the democracy issue.

When Than Shwe agreed last year to let the U.N. get involved in Myanmar as an external interlocutor on the democracy-at-home issue, he had little choice because of the immediacy of the context then of a mass protest against his reign. By early February, however, he no longer saw any such clouds of popular anger on his narrow political horizon. Unsurprisingly, Gambari and other U.N. officials were then feeling frustrated that he was dragging his feet in letting the world body carry forward its role as an intermediary, as different from a direct mediator.

Just over a year ago at the U.N. Security Council, China and Russia had vetoed a U.S.-led move to censure Myanmars junta and pressure it to release political prisoners, including Suu Kyi. This is the latest peg on which Than Shwe would like to hang his political coat on, convinced that friends in utmost need are utter friends indeed. It was the first occasion China had vetoed, since 1973, a measure that did not pertain to Taiwan. Analysts Andrew Small and Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt have pointed out in a recent article that Myanmar, acting within a few days after Beijings relevant veto, gave a Chinese firm a significant oil-and-gas exploration contract, for which an Indian competitor had indeed outbid. It has also been pointed out that Beijing, despite bailing Than Shwe out with that veto, chose at the same time to ask him to listen to the call of its [Myanmars] people.

Much has happened in Myanmar and the rest of the world since that veto saga. It is common knowledge among international diplomats that China influenced Than Shwe, behind the scenes, to receive Gambari and interact with him at the height of the pro-democracy protests in Myanmar last September and October.

What Than Shwe should know, therefore, is that big powers have a wider agenda than their own strategic interests in a particular country at a given time. Moreover, it is understood that the relevant Russia-China vetoes on the Myanmar issue flowed from their common strategy of not allowing the U.S. to set a Western-style democracy as the global norm for internal rule in individual countries.

Moreover, Chinas more recent actions in regard to Myanmar reflect the existence of another factor as well. The call of the people in an individual country is no less important than the generic principle of avoiding a global norm of internal governance in each state.

For Than Shwe, another factor to reckon with is the evidence by early February that Thailand is already on the road to the restoration of democracy, with the military rulers allowing the process to go ahead. And Thailand will be the next chair of the ASEAN later this year. Within Myanmar, too, Suu Kyi enjoys the full backing of her pro-democracy compatriots abroad, said Soe Aung, a dissident leader in exile. In all, Suu Kyis latest initiative is well-timed.

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