TOPICS: Burma talks: Genuine or time-buying tactic?

Larry Jagan

Tentative talks between Burma’s pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the country’s military rulers have begun, raising hopes of a political breakthrough. “If the talks go well, she may be released soon,” a spokesman for her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), told journalists on the weekend. The detained opposition leader, who has spent 12 of the last 18 years under house arrest, met Aung Gyi, a senior representative of the junta on Friday. This was the second meeting with the labour minister since his appointment as the government’s liaison minister.

But even more significantly, she was first allowed to meet key members of the NLD for the first time in more than three years. The breakthrough in the current impasse between the two sides came immediately after the latest visit to Burma by the UN Secretary General’s special advisor to Burma, Ibrahim Gambari. However, diplomats in Rangoon believe the visit was not instrumental in bringing about the new initiatives, but is rather a way for the regime to deflect international pressure to introduce political change, following the September crackdown by the army on peaceful demonstrations led by Buddhist monks.

“It is too early to tell whether the top generals are serious about political dialogue with the opposition or whether, as I fear, they are just using this to buy time while they press on with their own ‘roadmap’, which will effectively exclude Aung San Suu Kyi and her party from politics in the future,” a western diplomat said. The crucial change that Gambari was able to achieve is that, through him, Aung San Suu Kyi has been able to have her views heard. “In the interest of the nation, I stand ready to cooperate with the government in order to make this process of dialogue a success and welcome the necessary good offices role of the UN to help facilitate our efforts in this regard,” she said in a letter.

“I am committed to pursue the path of dialogue constructively and invite the government and all relevant parties to join me in this spirit,” she appealed in the letter. There was no reference to any precondition for such talks. Immediately after Gambari’s previous visit to Burma at the end of September, the Burmese junta leader Gen. Than Shwe had announced his willingness to meet the opposition leader, provided she was prepared to end

“confrontation” and end her support for sanctions and the “utter devastation” of the country.

“These pre-conditions are unacceptable as it is tantamount to admitting guilty to charges which are totally unfounded, just to meet Than Shwe,” a leading NLD member said. The two meetings between the labour minister Aung Gyi and Aung San Suu Kyi are part of a new process that could lead to fresh talks between the NLD and the military government. “These are pre-talks rather than the start of a serious dialogue process,” independent Burmese analyst Win Min warned. “But in any negotiation, both sides have to show goodwill — so far that seems to be happening,” he added.