Discussing democracy

Print edition : December 22, 2002

The United Nations' special envoy to Myanmar holds out the promise of progress in the talks between the military junta and the National League for Democracy.

IS a political breakthrough imminent in Myanmar? Have the talks between the military junta, officially known as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), and National League for Democracy (NLD) leader Aung San Suu Kyi progressed beyond the stage of confidence-building? Is a compromise arrangement possible now?

Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy. A file picture.-PATRICK DE NOIRMONT/REUTERS

While the statements emanating from the United Nations after its special envoy Razali Ismail's sixth visit to Myanmar since September 2000 point to positive answers to these questions, analysing the developments in that country is akin to making an intelligent guess. If Razali, a Malaysian diplomat, is not allowed into Myanmar for some months, it may be a signal that the talks are not going off well. If he is able to visit the country more often and his meetings with Suu Kyi last longer than the earlier rounds, the message is seen as positive. Little information on the state of the dialogue is available for the people of Myanmar.

Although political prisoners have been periodically released (a key issue raised by Suu Kyi), many important political personalities are still in jail. Suu Kyi herself remains under virtual house arrest in Yangon and has not said a word about the dialogue after it commenced.

During his last visit Razali Ismail was quoted as saying that he hoped to see "tangible results" and a "clear road-map by 2002". That was perhaps the most optimistic assessment of the talks until then.

A U.N. spokesperson said in New York on December 3 that Razali was hopeful of "significant progress" towards democracy in the near future and that he had asked the Myanmar government to free more political prisoners. "Mr. Razali was pleased that all parties remained committed to the process of national reconciliation and democracy," he said.

The U.N. envoy had encouraged both the government and Suu Kyi to turn their talks into a "substantive dialogue" as soon as possible. He urged the junta to free political prisoners, especially 19 members of Parliament who were elected in the 1990 elections, in order to "create a political climate conducive to advancing the dialogue".

U.N. special envoy Razali Ismail.-ANDY WONG/AP

An NLD leader in Yangon insisted that the talks were still in the confidence-building stage because many political leaders had not been released.

The ongoing talks constitute the most serious effort to arrive at a political compromise since the junta refused to hand over power to the NLD in 1990. Both sides have tried hard not to jeopardise the dialogue by maintaining absolute silence on its contents. Given the state of Myanmar, the exercise of confidence-building should continue until the end. Putting a bitter past behind them and developing mutual trust will not be an easy task for the two sides.

Any eventual settlement will have to be a compromise. The opening of several NLD offices and the release of prisoners are seen as promising signs. The junta's acceptance of Suu Kyi as an interlocutor, diplomats stress, was the first sign that it had softened its stance. But many leaders continue to be incarcerated and Suu Kyi can hardly be expected to make any "deal" until they are released.

Myanmar needs a massive infusion of foreign capital if it is to develop economically, but there are no signs of the junta handing over power to a civilian government to facilitate such an inflow of funds. It is firmly entrenched in power. The Myanmar regime has considerable support from the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN); even Japan has somewhat softened its position towards the country. Whatever ASEAN leaders may say in private to the rulers in Myanmar, publicly they have taken on Western governments, which have tried to browbeat Yangon.

In a sense, the Malaysian-U.N. initiative has so far shown the best chance of succeeding. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed, who has held high-level meetings with SPDC Chairman Than Shwe, has repeatedly stated that change in Myanmar will be a gradual process.

For the dialogue process to go beyond the confidence-building stage the military junta will impose a condition that the 1990 election results be discarded. The recent dismissal of top Ministers has conveyed the impression that it is keen on putting down corruption.

If the U.N. believes there is reason to be upbeat about the current developments in Myanmar, its assessment can hardly be discounted. But, at the same time, it will be important to keep in mind the realities on the ground - a military government which dominates the power structure and a democratic movement that has put all its cards into the dialogue mode as of now.

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