A time to talk, but silence beckons

One of the enduring themes of Aung San Suu Kyi’s recent release has been her repeated calls for dialogue with the regime, a necessary process if there is ever to be true reconciliation in Burma. Sadly, however, such a possibility looks as remote as ever.

As Suu Kyi said herself less than 48 hours after her 13 November release from house arrest, previous communication with Senior General Than Shwe has hardly been free-flowing in the past. “I think firstly we have to start talking affably – real, genuine talks, not just some more tea or this or that,” she said. “I have met him several times and in bits of those sessions we were able to – shall we say – crack the shell a bit.”

Suu Kyi’s description of previous discussions suggests the two leaders representing each side of Burma’s gaping political divide have rarely, if ever, got down to business. “Some say you have to be able to find a common ground but we also have to be able to argue with each other without enmity,” she said.

According to reports, the NLD leader has only ever held two official meetings with the head of the junta on the subject of reconciliation, and both of these were when Suu Kyi was under house arrest, the first back in 1994. Anecdotal evidence suggests that only the first meeting included any dialogue of substance. If true, that would mean Than Shwe and Suu Kyi have not held thorough discussions on Burma’s political impasse for 16 years.

The most promising period of discussion between the junta and the NLD, in 2002, was conducted mostly by then prime minister and head of the now-defunct Military Intelligence, Khin Nyunt. Since his arrest and the relocation of the regime’s senior leadership to Naypyidaw, talks between the military and Suu Kyi have been almost none existent.

And while recent reports on Khin Nyunt suggest he may be involved again in dialogue with ethnic groups, the possibility that he could be used as an interlocutor for the military with Suu Kyi seem far more remote. The junta will likely have used him to talk to ethnic groups as a last resort following recent fighting in Karen state and considerable discontent among ethnic groups that have so far refused to join the regime’s Border Guard Force. It would seem unlikely the regime would consider talks with Suu Kyi as equally high priority.

Despite Suu Kyi’s recent calls for dialogue with Than Shwe, there have been no signs since her release that the junta leader is willing to talk things through. The state-run New Light of Myanmar has in the past been used as a vehicle to advertise the military’s position on dialogue with the NLD, but since 13 November the daily has not mentioned the possibility of talks.

Yet more indicative of the junta’s stance on talks with the opposition was the weekend visit of UN envoy Vijay Nambiar, during which he met with Suu Kyi and other political parties, as well as Foreign Minister Nyan Win and USDP General Secretary Htay Oo, but no-one from the upper echelons of the military. This is a bad sign.

In the past when the military has considered the possibility of talks, such as in 2002 and early 2003, Than Shwe has met with UN envoys and Suu Kyi has been permitted to do the same, so at least a third party has been able to act as a go-between.

In truth, the junta probably feels it has few reasons to speak to the Nobel Peace Prize winner. Having fabricated an election landslide, the military is still in parliamentary-transition mode, a process that it has initiated whilst sidelining the NLD. From its behaviour over the past few weeks, all signs point towards a similar method of dealing with Suu Kyi. Now that the elections are over, the 1990 result is annulled and the NLD remains an illegal entity in a political space populated by parties that have taken part in the military’s woefully undemocratic process, Than Shwe is no doubt saying to himself: ‘Why should we speak to her?’

But from the crowds that welcomed her release and her first public speech at the NLD headquarters the following day, the junta would be miscalculating Suu Kyi’s enduring political influence if they feel she can be ignored.

The real tests in this regard remain. Given the NLD is theoretically still illegal, to what extent will other parties engage with Suu Kyi and to what extent can she galvanise the disgruntled parties that were robbed in the 7 November election? And to what extent is Suu Kyi truly free to travel outside of Rangoon and therefore show the military the degree of her support on a countrywide scale, as was the case in the past? And outside of Burma, will the likes of the US exert the necessary pressure and show a willingness to engage with the regime in a bid to push Than Shwe towards dialogue with his archenemy?

How these various scenarios play out will largely determine the extent to which the junta is able to continue ignoring Suu Kyi and her party, or not. And so it still remains to be seen whether Burma’s democracy icon can adapt to a political landscape that is vastly different to that before her detention in May 2003. Despite these changes and new challenges, Suu Kyi appears optimistic.

“I think it’s a good time for us to unite behind certain basic [democratic] principles that we can all accept,” she said of the new political scene following the recent election. “We want to use this as an opportunity for greater unity and greater understanding between the various groups.” Whether or not this turns out to be wishful thinking, only time will tell. But so far all signs point towards continued silence from the military.

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