Some movement in Myanmar

Print edition : July 21, 2001

The junta sends out positive signals by releasing political prisoners and allowing the National League for Democracy to open some of its offices, but doubts remain about the process of Myanmar's return to democracy.

A LARGE number of political prisoners have been released by the military junta in Myanmar in the past few weeks, raising hopes that the talks between the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) and National League for Democracy (NLD) leader Aung San Suu Kyi are coming back on track. The instances of release have also led to much speculation. Gen. Chavalit Yong-chaiyudh, the Defence Minister of Thailand, said recently that Suu Kyi and the junta planned to announce the formation of a national government and an election schedule. The General, seen as being close to the military rulers in Yangon, also said that after months of negotiations the two sides had reached an agreement to end the political stalemate. "Once all the groups are engaged in forming a national government and get to work, confidence will soon be established among the former rivals." But reports from Yangon have dismissed his statements as being speculative.

Aung San Suu Kyi, a file photograph.-RICHARD VOGEL/AP

There are also speculative reports that Suu Kyi, who is virtually under house arrest, may be freed before July 19, the anniversary of her father Gen. Aung San's assassination. However, given the absence of any statements from the parties concerned, reports about talks remain unconfirmed.

There is little doubt that the release of prisoners has, besides mitigating their pain and suffering, come as a major confidence-building measure. The years of distrust between the NLD and the junta cannot be wished away. So the Opposition presumably liked to see the SPDC putting its money where its mouth is in the matter of the release of prisoners. The junta's decision to allow the NLD to reopen as many as 18 of its 40 offices in Yangon constitutes another confidence building measure. Thus, the signals so far have been positive, but scepticism about the process remains. The main questions are: Is the junta about to step aside and let the NLD take its rightful place in government? If so, why is it planning to do it now? Is the "trust" between the two antagonists real?

The international community, which has maintained steady pressure on Myanmar, is impatient for results from the ongoing dialogue but understands that the process is fraught with obstacles. In the absence of concrete information, the "long gap" between the visits of the United Nations Secretary-General's special envoy Razali Ismail to Yangon (in January and then in June) was seen as an indicator that the talks were not proceeding well. It was since his June visit that political prisoners have been released and some NLD offices allowed to function.

A spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan was quoted as saying: "The Secretary-General welcomes the release of political detainees in Myanmar, including Saw Mra Aung, a senior member of the NLD... shortly after the visit to the country of his special envoy... he hopes to see further release of more political detainees in the near future." He also said: "The Secretary-General reiterates that there is no alternative to the ongoing talks between the government and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to bring about democratisation and national reconciliation in Myanmar. He urges the two sides to make further efforts to achieve tangible progress and calls on the international community to continue supporting the dialogue process in Myanmar."

Interestingly, the Thai Defence Minister's statement tallies with the remarks made by Ralph Boyce, the United States' Deputy Assistant Secretary of State. On June 7, he said in Bangkok that the talks between the SPDC and the NLD should soon yield concrete results. "It (the dialogue) has been going on for eight months... we expect to see a concrete result in a short while," he said.

Outside an office of the National League for Democracy, the first such to be reopened since Myanmar's military junta started cracking down on the pro-democracy movement in 1998.-AYE AYE WIN/AP

An issue that could have a bearing on the talks is a proposed U.S. law seeking to ban all imports from Myanmar. The Asian Wall Street Journal reported that the bipartisan "Burma Freedom Act", which was introduced in the U.S. Senate in May and the House of Representatives in June, has begun to affect garment imports from Myanmar. While the law is not expected to be debated until October this year, international garment buyers have started ordering from alternative sources in Asia. Aung Win, vice-chairman of the Myanmar Garment Manufacturing Association, was quoted as saying that orders from the U.S., which account for 65 per cent of all exports, have come down. According to him, of the 400 garment factories in Yangon, about half would close by the middle of July, putting 1,00,000 people out of work. "Although data are difficult to obtain, U.S. officials recently revised their figures upwards and estimate that garment imports from Myanmar soared to $454 million last year from $168 million in 1999, and have continued to climb this year," the report said. It quoted Lt. Col. Hla Min, a Myanmar government spokesman, as questioning the motives of U.S. law-makers in sponsoring the law. He warned that the reconciliation (dialogue) process in Myanmar could not be "steam-rolled" and that the Bill could even "derail the development that has taken place in recent weeks".

Such a law will be of direct concern to the Myanmar authorities, a point that has been made by the spokesman. It will also be unrealistic to expect that the dialogue process could be "speeded up" by such pressure tactics. For over a decade, the Myanmar junta has ignored the overriding sentiments of the international community and charted its own course. That course may have been littered with problems, but the SPDC has not been deterred.

It is clear that any settlement between the junta and the NLD has to be on the basis of a compromise. The military is unlikely to return to the barracks; it will insist on a role in any new power-sharing arrangement. As for Suu Kyi, her democratic credentials as the leader of the NLD must remain intact in any compromise.

It may well be a good thing that not much information is available about the dialogue process. This will enable both parties to reconcile their differences in private. However, if the talks fail or get stalled, then the pressures will mount again. In the present situation, the military government has to "give more" to Suu Kyi than what it has to get from her.

It remains an open question whether the well-entrenched junta is interested in an "exit policy" at all. It has accepted Suu Kyi as an interlocutor. Will it accept her as a partner in power too?

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