Dialogue: Just a game or a real possibility for Burma?

Htet Aung Kyaw

Oct 23, 2007 (DVB)-After the deadly crackdown on monks who led peaceful demonstrations on the streets of Rangoon, ruling junta chief senior general Than Shwe announced he would enter into dialogue with detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Many observers and politicians welcomed this as a significant move, despite what experience has shown Than Shwe's attitude to be over the past two decades.

State Peace and Development Council chairman Than Shwe made his statement offering talks on 4 October, after meeting with United Nations special envoy Ibrahim Gambari in the isolated jungle outpost of Naypyidaw.

He also appointed deputy labor minister Aung Kyi as "minister of relations" on 8 October, reportedly "in respect of Mr Ibrahim Gambari’s recommendation and in view of smooth relations with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi".

These two unusual acts came just before the United Nations Security Council meeting in New York where Gambari briefed world leaders on his trip to Burma.

On 11 October, after a week-long debate, the UNSC adopted a presidential statement, in which it "strongly deplores the use of violence against peaceful demonstrations" and "emphasizes the importance of the early release of all political prisoners and remaining detainees".

The UNSC also welcomed the appointment of the liaison officer and called for cooperation between the Burmese government and all other parties to find a peaceful solution.

Despite the regime's rhetoric about dialogue, there is no evidence of real progress in Rangoon. In a statement on 12 October, the junta said the UNSC statement was "regrettable" and that they would go ahead with their own seven-step road map.

U Lwin, spokesperson for Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, said that the NLD had only read media reports about the new relations minister, and had had no official contact.

"In the past, [the junta] allowed us to meet Daw Suu before the processes began," U Lwin told this correspondent in a telephone interview.

U Lwin was a key person in previous dialogue processes sponsored by former UN special envoy Razali Ismail in 2001. Even without a minister for relations at that time, U Lwin had good contact with government official, especially senior figures in the ousted prime minister Gen Khin Nyunt’s intelligence unit.

"We had arranged for the release of some political prisoners, to reopen some of our branch offices, and to go on party trips to some parts of country before the 30 May Depayin incident in 2003." lamented U Lwin.

After that, all NLD’s branch offices were closed, many activists were re-arrested, and Aung San Suu Kyi was placed back under house arrest with no one was allowed to meet her except current UN special envoy Gambari, who met her three times in 2 years.

"Everybody knows Than Shwe is not sincere about talking with Daw Suu" said colonel Aye Myint who retired from the army in the 88 uprising. "Can you believe the man who commanded to kill her in Depayin saying he wants dialogue with her?" he questioned.

However, he thinks it is possible the dialogue process could be take place this time, not because Than Shwe genuinely wants dialogue, "but because some pro-democracy commanders could push him into it".

Win Min, a Harvard University researcher on military and civilian relations, agreed with Aye Myint.

"I also heard that some educated officers want to see change in Burma soon. Pressure is coming now not only from the international community but also from inside the military," he commented.

"It seems that [Than Shwe] only reacts to pressure so we need to push for real dialogue. If we look back South Africa’s national reconciliation process, it came about through pressure," he pointed out.

Although many Burmese are trying to see the move as a positive sign, a senior American professor from Rutgers University gives a different view.

"We all know what has happened in Burma for the past two decades. The generals are never honest in talks with [Aung San] Suu Kyi. So this move is just a game to buy time, to distract attention from the killing of monks," the respected retired professor told this correspondent.

To prove his point, the generals are now showing their true colours as they continue the crackdown, torturing and killing dozens of activists in custody, arresting hundreds of activists every night. 88 generation student group leader Htay Kyew, who had been in hiding, and three others were arrested last weekend.

Ashin U Gamira, a spokesperson for the underground Alliance of All-Burma Buddhist monks, which led the recent peaceful protests, said that the monks are in hiding and waiting to see the results of UN efforts.

"We want real action from UNSC, for them at least to send a monitoring mission to stop the junta’s ongoing violence. But now the UNSC gives us only words", Ashin U Gamira said.

"If nothing effective comes out of the UNSC and Mr Gambari’s plans, we have no choice but to return to the streets until the government is changed".

Htet Aung Kyaw is a senior journalist for DVB radio and TV station.

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