MANDALAY, BURMA — To hear Lu Maw tell it, there's always a touch of magic in the air when the military rulers of Burma (Myanmar) come to town.
"Normally, the lights aren't working. We always got blackouts so you need to use a generator," he says. "But when the [junta leaders] are here, electricity is 24 hours, nonstop, no problem - yes!"
His joke raises a chuckle from a handful of foreign tourists who've found their way to the back-street house-cum-theater to watch a high-octane blend of slapstick comedy, dance - and dissent. Lu Maw's brother spent five years in jail for joshing the generals during a similar performance at the house of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi in 1996.
Asked about the regime's recent promise of a new constitution and a return to civilian rule, Lu Maw jabs his finger at the question. "I don't trust them. They should release all the political prisoners first. Even if they release Aung San Suu Kyi, what about the rest?" he asks.
As the world waits for a sign that Burma's junta is serious about democratic reforms, the opposition is preparing for talks that will test the regime's promises. The negotiations, slated to begin May 17, have an element of déjà vu - a similar forum was held but collapsed in 1996 after Suu Kyi's party walked out. This time, however, pressure is building on both sides to end a stalemate that has left Burma a pariah state.
The military regime came to power after crushing a pro-democracy uprising in 1988. Two years later, the generals ignored elections that showed a victory for the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest since last May.
The NLD announced last week that it would send delegates to the upcoming constitutional forum, on the conditions that free debate is allowed and that Suu Kyi and her deputy, Tin Oo, are released. Observers are welcoming the government's invitation to the talks and the NLD's tentative acceptance as crucial first steps in finding a solution to the standoff.
Western countries including the US, which tightened economic sanctions on Burma following an attack on NLD supporters last year by government-paid thugs, have long insisted that Suu Kyi and her party be partners in any settlement. Without their full participation, and that of ethnic politicians and former rebel groups, those countries are unlikely to support any deal struck at the forum.
After so many false starts in the past, diplomats say pressure is also building on the opposition to compromise with the regime. Many countries are frustrated with a standoff that has starved Burma of much-needed aid. Its neighbors in Southeast Asia are equally determined to bring Burma into the fold and show that engagement works where Western sanctions have failed.
"The NLD is in a tough place. Either they participate in something odious and undemocratic, or they refuse and get labeled as intransigent," said a Western diplomat in Rangoon.
Nudged by its Asian allies, the ruling State Peace & Development Council last year pledged to draw up a new Constitution in consultation with political parties, ethnic factions, and other social groups. But in recent weeks the generals have sent mixed signals on how far they are prepared to go in allowing the opposition a role in shaping the process. The NLD walked out of the previous forum to protest their limited role. As before, a list of nonnegotiable principles - including complete autonomy for the military and presidential qualifications that exclude Suu Kyi - limits the convention's options.
Hopes for concessions by the regime center on Prime Minister Khin Nyunt, author of the government's reform "road map" that begins with the convention. General Nyunt is viewed as more pragmatic than junta leader Gen. Than Shwe. But one diplomat adds, "they all wear the same uniform."
NLD activists also express skepticism. "The military dictates the rules, so how can there be any free discussion?" asks one. "It's all a game, nothing more."
Another failure would spell further misery for millions of impoverished people cut off from outside aid and development. "Education, healthcare and the economy, they've all collapsed. How can people suffer any more?" asks an opposition activist.
Over at the NLD's dilapidated Rangoon headquarters, which was allowed to reopen April 17, volunteers are busy stacking pamphlets and packing T-shirts emblazoned with Suu Kyi's steely gaze. (Outside the capital, NLD offices remain shuttered and many of its leaders are under close watch after spells in prison.)
U Soe Win, who was elected in 1990 to a defunct parliament and has been jailed multiple times, smiles when asked if the struggle was worthwhile. "Be patient and never surrender, that's what I believe," he says.