/ 10 November 2007

Burmese junta ‘putting energy into reform’

Detained democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi received rare front-page billing on Saturday in Burma’s state-controlled press, which said the ruling junta is ”putting energy” into democratic reforms demanded by the international community.

Suu Kyi was allowed to meet leaders of her opposition party on Friday for the first time in more than three years and told them she believes the generals intend to work toward democracy after decades of repression.

Immediately before and after talks with her political allies, Suu Kyi met Aung Kyi, the general appointed as the ”minister for relations” with the opposition leader, according to the New Light of Myanmar newspaper.

The regime’s tightly controlled newspapers published a photograph of Suu Kyi and Aung Kyi, smiling and shaking hands at a government guest house — an indication the government was keen to publicise the meeting even though it has not commented on what was discussed.

It is the third time in a month that Suu Kyi’s image has appeared in state-controlled media, which refused for years to print her picture or even refer to her by name.

”While putting energy into the democratisation process, the government has been making efforts for the national reconsolidation,” the New Light of Myanmar wrote in its front-page story. It did not elaborate.


The junta, which came under renewed international pressure after it crushed pro-democracy demonstrations led by Buddhist monks in September, allowed Suu Kyi to meet her party’s officials after the latest in a series of visits by UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari.

However, outside observers said they were doubtful the meeting was a real sign of change.

”This meeting was conducted in a government-controlled guest house, which in all likelihood was bugged by Burmese intelligence services, inhibiting open discussion,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement on Saturday.

The group added the generals have ”yet to release political prisoners and protesters, end military rule or even hold serious discussion with the political opposition”.

Suu Kyi, however, told her colleagues she was ”very optimistic” about the prospects of dialogue with the government, which cracked down on her National League for Democracy party after it won elections in 1990, said Nyan Win, a spokesperson for the party.

”She believes that the ruling SPDC has the will to achieve national reconciliation,” said Nyan Win, who attended the meeting at the government guest house. The junta refers to itself as the State Peace and Development Council.

‘Full of ideas’

Suu Kyi suggested the military rulers could make a conciliatory gesture by releasing political prisoners, but appeared to concede she herself will remain detained for the immediate future. She told her colleagues she will ask the government for two liaison officers of her choice to communicate with her party’s officials on her behalf.

Suu Kyi said she will also ask Aung Kyi to arrange for her to see the other party leaders whenever necessary. ”She is full of ideas,” Nyan Win said, adding the former Nobel Peace Prize laureate looked ”fit, well and energetic like before”.

Suu Kyi has been detained for 12 of the past 18 years, and continuously since May 2003.

The government says 10 people were killed in the September 26 and 27 crackdown on pro-democracy protests, though diplomats and dissidents say the death toll was much higher. Thousands were arrested, with the events triggering intense global condemnation.

The roots of Burma’s crisis are in the military’s refusal to hand over power after Suu Kyi’s party won a 1990 general election. The junta now says it is following a seven-step ”road map” to democracy that is supposed to culminate in free elections, though it has not set a timeline for the process.

Burma experts were cautious about the prospects for reconciliation. A previous UN-initiated dialogue in 2002 and 2003, begun when Suu Kyi was serving an earlier term of house arrest, withered without making any headway.

The regime, which is notoriously thin-skinned about foreign criticism, also faces further scrutiny about its human rights record.

The UN’s special investigator for human rights in Burma, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, has been invited for a five-day visit starting on Sunday. — Sapa-AP