Wednesday, August 24, 2011

It's Finally Time to Make Burmese Government Accountable

It is clear — even to her opponents — that Aung San Suu Kyi is not an “ordinary civilian,” which was the term Burma’s vice president, Tin Aung Myint Oo, had used to describe her to US Senator John McCain in June.

Suu Kyi’s first face-to-face meeting with Burmese President Thein Sein at the presidential palace is welcome news. There is no doubt that her high-profile attendance at a government workshop in the capital of Naypyidaw last week is highly significant.

She and the president reportedly enjoyed a cordial conversation, though no details of the meeting were released by either camp. It has also been learned that Thein Sein and his wife hosted Suu Kyi for dinner at the presidential palace.

Burmese state broadcasts on Friday evening and state newspapers on Saturday reported Suu Kyi’s meeting with Thein Sein, and showed pictures and footage of the two sitting for reporters beneath a picture of Suu Kyi’s father, Gen. Aung San, Burma’s independence hero and founder of the Burmese Armed Forces.

Was there a subliminal message here? Suu Kyi’s bold and upright appearance in the photograph appeared as if she were visiting the president on behalf of her father. “What have you done to Burma?” could have been the caption.

State mouthpiece, The New Light of Myanmar, reported the meeting from a different angle: “The president and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi tried to find out the potential common grounds to cooperate in interests [sic] of the nation and the people putting aside different views.”

The news report did not explore further what “potential common grounds” were discussed. But whatever the rhetoric, the apparent progress is certainly heartening.

We were told that Suu Kyi was pleasantly surprised when the government’s liaison, Labor Minister Aung Kyi, invited her to a second round of meetings earlier this month.

Sources in Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy noted that Aung Kyi no longer played the role of messenger. He appeared to be in a position to negotiate, and had apparently softened his stance and offered some concessions, including the release of some political prisoners.

Informed sources have suggested that at the core of Aung Kyi’s brinkmanship was the fact that the government wants Suu Kyi’s endorsement when it approaches the International Monetary Fund for assistance. Recently, it was reported that the new Burmese government was seeking IMF help to reform its complex foreign exchange system.

At the same time, Suu Kyi herself flexed her political muscle after dissidents and exiled Burmese activists urged her to be more pragmatic at the negotiating table.

Since then, Suu Kyi and her NLD aides have appeared much more savvy, with Suu Kyi’s charisma turning into cool gravitas. At the second meeting between Aung Kyi and Suu Kyi, they made real progress. Without it, Suu Kyi would not have gone to Naypyidaw.

Win Tin, a staunch critic of the regime who spent 19 years in prison, followed suit by softening his tone, saying that he believed dialogue between the government and the opposition party leader was a real possibility.

While in Naypyidaw, Suu Kyi met several important players — though notably not longtime strongman Sr. Gen. Than Shwe. Government cronies, influential businessmen, presidential advisers and several powerful ministers were reportedly pleased to meet her.

Observers are naturally questioning why the government seems to have had a change of heart. Even the cynics, the doubters and the overly cautious among us see reason to feel upbeat.

But this is not the first time Suu Kyi has received privileged treatment from her captors. The year before her convoys were ambushed and dozens were killed in Depayin in May 2003, she and top NLD aides were taken to rural areas on an inspection tour of the government’s “nation-building” projects.

She was also treated with regal respect when regional commanders and officials welcomed her and her party leaders to a tour of dam and road-building projects.

Even her fiercest opponent, Than Shwe, and his top brass conceded to dine with Suu Kyi and her team at that time.

But then it all went pear-shaped. Suu Kyi’s political tours drew hundreds of thousands of supporters wherever she went. The euphoria and adulation for the Nobel Peace Prize laureate convinced the military junta that she must be stopped and she spent the next seven years under house arrest.

This time around, pundits say, the new civilian offshoot of the junta is eager to demonstrate that they are different.

Optimists say that in spite of an ongoing power struggle within the government, Thein Sein, who served under Than Shwe for many years, is more reform-minded and more likely to tolerate opposition. He could find it expedient to make a deal with Suu Kyi.

For the first time in a generation, the reformers within government may have the upper hand.

Be that as it may, critics are quite correct to point out that the government is eager to present a cleaner image ahead of the decision by Asean on whether to allow Burma to chair the regional bloc in 2014. They say the olive branch offered to Suu Kyi and the opposition, as well as an invitation to Burmese exiles to return home, are hollow gestures aimed as gaining international credibility.

During her talks with the labor minister, Suu Kyi reportedly aired widespread concerns about the conflicts in Kachin, Shan and Karen states. Whatever assurances she received, skeptics caution that the military’s divide-and-rule strategy between ethnic and democratic forces will likely come back into play and that ethnic groups will be excluded from the dialogue. In anticipation of this, Burma’s democratic forces and ethnic groups must play ball to ensure national reconciliation takes on a more harmonious quality.

In addition to insisting that ethnic armed groups be included in political dialogue, we must maintain our guarded optimism and keep asking the government to free all political prisoners. Without a successful resolution of these issues, Burma will never achieve peace and stability.

Most argue that whatever deep skepticism exists, it is finally time to move in a direction that will make the government and president of Burma accountable. Of course, everyone wants to see action, not just words. To gauge whether the government is prepared to take those meaningful steps will require Suu Kyi to take that long lonely drive to Naypyidaw several more times.

The Irrawaddy

Aung Zaw is founder and editor of The Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at

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