Burma's Strongmen Meet With the Lady

Five years after silencing opposition leader Suu Kyi, isolated military leadership moves toward open dialogue

AFTER years of whispering her name, the people of Burma were startled this week when news anchors on state television read it out, loud and clear.

The broadcasts included footage of Aung San Suu Kyi, the voice and spirit of public opposition to the ruling military junta, meeting with top generals. Her voice has been silenced, her writings and references to the opposition's fight for democracy banned since the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) placed her under strict house arrest in 1989 and refused to turn over control to her National League for Democracy following that party's decisive victory at the polls in 1990.

Ms. Suu Kyi, is the daughter of Burmese independence leader, Aung San, and had lived most of her adult life in the West. She returned to Burma (also known as Myanmar) in 1988 and began a nationwide campaign for reconciliation and the restoration of democracy. Arrested in July 1989, she was declared ineligible to compete in the May 1990 elections.

Slender and graceful in a traditional Burmese dress, she smiled and appeared to chat with junta chief Gen. Than Shwe and military intelligence chief Lt. Gen. Khin Nyunt.

It was a photo opportunity, says Rep. Bill Richardson, the New Mexico Democrat who is among the few nonfamily members allowed to meet with her.

Junta takes a gamble

While politics in Burma may seem to move at glacial speed, and a meeting between two generals and a slight woman may seem inconsequential, analysts say SLORC has taken a huge gamble. ``It's getting harder and harder to keep Suu Kyi under house arrest,'' says a foreign diplomat based in Rangoon (also called Yangon), ``and not necessarily any easier to release her.''

``There's no turning back now,'' says Peter Engardio, a specialist in Asian affairs in Hong Kong. ``For SLORC to meet with her is tantamount to recognizing her.''

Like a player in a high-stakes chess game, SLORC is expected to wait and see how this move will be received by the international community.

This week's televised meeting and Mr. Richardson's visit last year, are the two most dramatic gestures in SLORC's ongoing efforts to restrain the opposition, defend its ignominious human rights record, and keep a grip on this ethnically diverse country, a former British colony that gained independence in 1948.

Although what was actually discussed has not been disclosed, the meeting has been widely viewed as a softening, if not outright capitulation, by a leadership that had previously refused to meet with Suu Kyi or release her unless she agreed to leave the country.

Supporters and exiled opposition leaders have warned that the meeting was nothing more than posturing aimed at improving SLORC's image prior to two upcoming events: the opening of the United Nations General Assembly, and the next meeting of the domestic constitutional convention.

A subtle shift in position

But while some might view the meeting as a total sham or, at best, a startling deviation from policy, it is more likely neither. In the complex workings of Asian politics, the meeting seems to signal a subtle shift in position rather than an about-face. Over the last five years SLORC has taken small, but significant, steps toward political and economic liberalization. These have been downplayed or ignored by most Western governments, which condemn the junta's repressive policies.

Now that SLORC has taken a more flexible stance there has been some rethinking. In July the Association of Southeast Asian Nations held its annual meeting, and host country Thailand sent Burma an unprecedented invitation to send an observer. By the end of the week Hans van den Broek, the European Union's commissioner for external political affairs, said ``we must recognize that our policy so far has not been very successful. Not so much has changed despite our declarations and demarches.'' He called for ``occasional dialogue.''

The US, which has been reappraising its Burma policy for some time, now stands almost alone in its resistance to dealing with SLORC. While analysis has focused on the reaction of the international community, the junta, which made sure the event was widely broadcast both on local radio and television, was clearly playing to the home audience as well.

Opinion is divided as to why they chose to publicize the meeting. Some observers say SLORC feels relatively secure politically since ad hoc economic measures aimed at opening the country after decades of self-imposed isolation are beginning to have an effect; and opposition groups operating in Thailand and the US do not present a unified front and are not considered a threat.

But others say the junta simply feels the need to appeal to a populace that largely hates them. ``They are evil and they are idiots,'' says a Burmese national who asked for anonymity. ``If they think they're more in control, they're fools. They're out of touch with reality.''

Other Burmese have adapted a more tolerant, but not necessarily more favorable view of the military regime that has suppressed all political activity since winning less than 20 percent of the vote in 1990.

``With every mistake they make they are digging their own grave,'' says an elderly Burmese man who once worked for the British colonial government in Burma. ``You don't even have to push them in, they will fall in by the weight of their own mistakes.''

The last time this man spoke with a foreigner he says he was taken away to a military camp for a day's interrogation.

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