A secret dialogue has been taking place since October between opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the core of generals that rule Myanmar, the former Burma.
Myanmar’s main pro-democracy party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), last week confirmed the negotiations between Suu Kyi and the junta. An NLD executive member, U Lwin, said the talks were at a very early stage, adding that it would take great patience for more substantive discussions on Myanmar’s political future to develop.
“The meeting is what we have been working for,” he said. “Since [news of] it has appeared, the responsibility has become greater on both sides not to interrupt the momentum of the process. Both sides have to be careful not to irritate the process.”
Lwin said that the NLD’s members were told in December of the meetings between Suu Kyi and senior generals, including the junta’s first secretary and powerful chief of military intelligence, Lieutenant General Khin Nyunt.
According to diplomatic sources in Bangkok and Myanmar’s capital, Yangon, Nyunt met Suu Kyi at least once last month. A second meeting may have taken place over the past few days.
The last time Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize-winner, held substantive talks with the junta was in 1994, when she was released after six years in prison. News of the talks came as a surprise as Suu Kyi has been under virtual house arrest since last September, when she was blocked from leaving Yangon.
The military first came to power in Myanmar in 1962. The NLD, formed in 1988, won an overwhelming majority in the last general election in 1990, but has never been allowed to govern. Its members are harassed, detained and beaten. Despite this, Suu Kyi has refused to compromise on the restoration of full democracy.
Lwin said both sides were toning down their rhetoric against the other. “The government papers have stopped carrying provocative articles and cartoons and therefore we decided not to do anything that will be provocative,” he said. Some sources in Yangon say that Nyunt’s willingness to meet Suu Kyi could be part of a power struggle between generals jockeying to succeed the ailing supreme leader, General Than Shwe.
“An awful lot is going on behind the scenes in the corridors of power,” said one diplomat. “I would not be surprised if this was linked to that.” Public reaction to the dialogue has been mixed. The exiled All Burma Students’ Democratic Front hailed the talks as a “historic breakthrough after 12 years of struggle”.
“We hope this dialogue will begin to overcome the major problems of civil war and bring about democratisation,” it said. “This is the most positive sign we’ve seen since the election in 1990.”
Governments in South-East Asia were also encouraged by the dialogue. Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia said they hoped for further breakthroughs.
One diplomat said the progress so far was the result of “doing things quietly, the Asean [Association of South-East Asian Nations] way” — a reference to the regional group’s policy of “constructive engagement” with its member countries, rather than intervention. It is thought that Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad stressed to the junta the importance of continuing the talks during a visit to the capital last week.
Western governments were less effusive.
British Foreign Office Minister John Battle said: “We hope these [talks] will soon lead to a substantive political breakthrough and look forward to the early release of Aung San Suu Kyi and her colleagues. “We do not intend to relax our international pressure for respect for democracy and human rights for the Burmese people until we see real progress.”
Britain and the United States have been leading a global campaign against the junta’s oppression of the country’s 46-million people, including massive forced labour projects. US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, a consistent supporter of Suu Kyi, welcomed news about the talks but warned that the military must not be allowed to submit the opposition leader to “patronising and cruel conversations that were evident when I was there”.
She said it was crucial that Suu Kyi should be “respected as a political leader and not, as was framed to me, as a ‘little sister’, that they had to take care of by keeping her in her house”.
Albright visited Myanmar while US ambassador to the United Nations in September 1995 UN representative Fred Eckhard said last week that Secretary General Kofi Annan ”reiterates his call for the two sides to seize the momentum and work for national reconciliation”.