Breakthrough in Burma - talks are a start

Meetings between Aung San Suu Kyi and government are first positive step in years.

Burmese opposition groups are urging the international community to keep up pressure on the military government in Rangoon, the capital, amid hopes that the country's long-running and costly political stalemate may have finally broken.

Tuesday's announcement by the United Nations of the first meeting between the military junta and the opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, in more than five years has sparked expressions of unusual optimism.

"This is a historic breakthrough," says Teddy Buri, of the Bangkok-based National Council of the Union of Burma. "It shows that despite the hard-line posture they strike in public, the generals realize - in their heart of hearts - that there needs to be a change."

Clearly, there is still a very long way to go. Ms. Suu Kyi herself remains under what amounts to house arrest - a restriction imposed last September, when security forces barred her from meeting supporters outside the capital. It's far from clear when these - and even harsher punitive measures against her senior colleagues in the National League for Democracy - will be lifted.

The crackdown on the NLD had unleashed a fresh torrent of criticism from Western governments. Late last year, the International Labor Organization called for tougher action against Burma, also called Myanmar, because of its alleged failure to end forced labor and continued reports of massive human rights violations.

Observers say that it was the threat of tighter sanctions against a country whose economy is already in dire straits that prompted the military leadership to change tack and agree to talks with Suu Kyi. But some question the sincerity of a regime that regularly heaps venom on the woman who led the NLD to victory in elections in 1990 - a victory that has never been honored. Until just days ago, state-run newspapers derided Suu Kyi as a witch and a traitor to her people (her marriage to the late British academic Michael Aris earned her particular scorn).

Credit for nudging the generals toward compromise should probably go to UN envoy Razali Ismail. It was Mr. Ismail who, at the end of a five-day visit to Rangoon, broke the news of the meeting between Suu Kyi and Lt.-Gen. Khin Nyunt, secretary one of the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). It subsequently emerged that the first round of secret talks had actually taken place in October.

Razali, formerly Malaysia's ambassador to the UN, described the meeting as "extremely significant." He added: "It's what the UN and international community were hoping would happen, and we're very glad this has taken place."

He dismissed the idea that the talks had been a military publicity stunt. "These talks are being conducted with good faith on both sides."

Significant, too, was the role played by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who also visited Burma last week. Dr. Mahathir has frequently sided with Rangoon in the face of censure from Western governments, and helped smooth Burma's accession to the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1997, overriding doubts expressed by other member states.

If - as diplomats believe - the Malaysian prime minister urged his Burmese interlocutors to show flexibility, they would have found it hard not to listen.

According to Mr. Buri, it will require further diplomatic intervention from Mahathir and other governments with friendly ties to Rangoon - including China and Japan - to ensure the process of dialogue doesn't stall. "There are many things we'd like to see happen," Buri says. "But let's take it one step at a time."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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