Thu 31 Jan 2008
Filed under: Inside Burma,News
Burma’s pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, turned a rare moment of freedom in the military-ruled country, this week, to urge Asian governments not to be lulled into believing the junta’s promises of political change.
Aung San Suu Kyi is ‘’not satisfied” with the meetings she has had with the junta’s liaison officer, labour minister Aung Kyi, to resolve the country’s current political crisis, the spokesman of her political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), was quoted as having told reporters in Rangoon on Wednesday.
Most worrying to Nobel Peace laureate Suu Kyi is ‘’the lack of any time frame” in the mediation talks, said Nyan Win, the NLD’s spokesman. ‘’We should hope for the best and prepare for the worst,” he quoted her as having said when Suu Kyi met leaders of the NLD at a military guest house in the country’s former capital.
Suu Kyi’s meeting with her party’s executives was a rare moment of freedom afforded to her by the junta, which has kept her under house arrest for more than 12 of the past 18 years. This meeting followed the one she had with NLD leaders last November, which was the first encounter she had had with them in over three years.
Suu Kyi’s meetings with Aung Kyi was the result of international pressure on the junta following its brutal crackdown of peaceful demonstrations last September in the country where, according to the United Nations, at least 31 people were killed. The two have met on five occasions, the last of which was this month.
This week’s tone of the pro-democracy leader, whose party triumphed at a 1990 general elections that the junta has refused to recognise, was a departure from the message she had conveyed to the public about her encounters with the military regime’s minister in November. Then she had welcomed the talks as a constructive development.
‘’No one can misinterpret what she has said, least of all countries like China, India, Japan and Burma’s neighbours in South-east Asia,” says Debbie Stothard of ALTSEAN, a regional human rights lobby campaigning for change in Burma. ‘’These Asian countries were prepared to give the junta a chance for change after the crackdown and were willing to be more conciliatory than Western governments.”
But now, Suu Kyi has exposed the game the junta is trying to play by ‘’offering very little substance in the talks, yet trying to drag it on to give the appearance that they are serious about the negotiations,” she explained in an interview. ‘’It is a very courageous move by Aung San Suu Kyi to speak her mind this week, for she risks more years of solitary confinement and being cut off from meetings with her party.”
‘’If the military is serious about having meaningful talks, it could have started it in November. It is up to the junta to initiate the negotiations with a timeline in mind,” Zin Linn, a spokesman for the National Coalition Government for the Union of Burma (NCGUB), the Burmese government in exile, told IPS. ‘’Aung San Suu Kyi knows that the people are suffering and she did not want to give false hopes that the talks with the junta were going well.”
China, India and Burma’s neighbours in the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN), a 10-member regional bloc, were more restrained in cracking the whip at the junta unlike the governments in Europe, the United States and Britain. The latter introduced harsher sanctions on the junta, in addition to tough rhetoric calling for change, after the suppression of last September’s pro-democracy protests, led by Buddhist monks.
Where all countries reached common ground, however, was to pressure the junta to permit U.N. special envoy Ibrahim Gambari to visit the country to meet Suu Kyi and Burma’s strongman, Senior Gen. Than Shwe. Gambari has visited the South-east Asian nation twice since the crackdown, but he has been denied an entry visa for a third visit.
The junta’s commitment to engage with the United Nations has been undermined on another front, too. The military leaders have gone against their word made last year to stop arresting political activists in the country for their roles — however minor — in the September protests. The global rights lobby Amnesty International revealed this month that the Burmese government has arrested 96 political activists since the beginning of November 2007.
‘’U.N. Special Representative Ibrahim Gambari was told in early November by (Burmese) Prime Minister Thein Sein that arrests had stopped and that no more would take place,” said Amnesty. ‘’The new arrests in December and January target people who have attempted to send evidence of the crackdown to the international community, clearly showing that the government’s chief priority is to silence its citizens.”
Last September’s protests arose after the junta, notorious for its suppression, raised the price of oil by 500 percent overnight in mid-August. The demonstrations on the streets of Rangoon and elsewhere were the largest against the junta in nearly two decades. Such outpouring of rage occurred just as the military was trying to win international support over its commitment towards political reform by advancing a seven-step ‘’roadmap to democracy”.
This blueprint for political change — including free elections — has not spelled out a time-frame, leading analysts to say that it is another attempt by the junta to lull the international community in believing that it is for reform when, in reality, the reverse is true. It is a view fuelled by the military hardliners who have had a grip on power since 1962, when the army grabbed power in a coup.
‘’As long as Than Shwe is in charge, I cannot see any reconciliation between the military and Aung San Suu Kyi,” says Aung Naing Oo, a Burmese political analyst, living in exile in Thailand. ‘’He has been trying to sideline her, and the latest strategy is to use the roadmap to democracy and the new constitution to achieve that objective.”
It is a move, however, that has backfired, as have the talks the junta agreed to hold with Suu Kyi, he added in an interview. ‘’Than Shwe now has very little options to manouvre, since he doesn’t want to give up power and he has no interest in talking to Aung San Suu Kyi.”