Junta shows signs of opening up

Going by the highly restrictive way Myanmar’s military regime does business, it was a victory for international diplomacy. At the weekend, it looked as if the junta was taking a step back by permitting a UN official to meet incarcerated, pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The one-hour meeting that UN under secretary-general for political affairs Ibrahim Gambari had with Suu Kyi, at a state guest house, came after the junta had disallowed similar meetings by other UN envoys over the past two years — even denying them visas to enter their country.

Gambari’s success in meeting Suu Kyi who has spent more than 10 of the last 17 years under house arrest, highlights the importance the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), as the junta is officially known, has accorded this visit. Consequently, the breakthrough visit which ended Saturday, is being viewed by some experts as a sign that the military regime is feeling the heat at the UN over its oppressive record.

“The campaign to get Myanmar discussed at the UN Security Council is working,” Debbie Stothard of the Alternate ASEAN Network on Myanmar, a regional rights lobby, said.

The global body’s concern about Myanmar’s failure to restore democracy and its notorious human rights record has taken a more aggressive tone. Late December, Gambari presented a scathing report to the Security Council that listed the many horrors the Myanmarese are enduring due to a brutal dictatorship. They included the torching of villages, systematic attacks on civilians, forced labour and an emerging humanitarian crisis. And in two other resolutions at the UN’s most powerful body — on child soldiers and the abuse of civilians in conflicts — the junta has been named among the violators.

Besides the UN, the US government and the EU have also increased pressure on the Myanmar government to ease its iron grip, free political prisoners, stop attacks on ethnic minority communities or face the repercussions, such as sanctions. On last Thursday, President Bush renewed US sanctions on Myanmar, which includes a ban on its exports to the US markets.

Fortunately, Gambari will not have to wait long to assess how serious the ruling generals were when the subject of Suu Kyi’s fate was being discussed. After all, freedom for the 60-year-old leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD), which won a landslide victory at the 1990 general elections that the junta refuses to recognise, is pivotal if there is to be any meaningful political reform.

Suu Kyi has not been allowed to meet any foreigners since March 2004 when she was allowed a visit by Malaysia’s Razali Ismail, the UN special envoy for Myanmar. In March, Malaysian foreign minister, Syed Ham-id Albar, abruptly cut short a trip to Rangoon as envoy of the ASEAN regional grouping, of which Myanmar is a member, after he was denied a meeting with Suu Kyi.

Myanmar has been ruled by successive military regimes since a 1962 coup. The current military rulers came into power after crushing a popular uprising led by students in 1988, which resulted in hundreds of civilians being gunned down. The SPDC has tried

to isolate Suu Kyi and her party as they push ahead with a flawed political reform package that aims to cement the military’s hold on power rather than advance democracy. — IPS