A flurry of public activity by an imprisoned opposition leader and the screening of a US-funded anti-trafficking documentary may signal a tentative thaw in military-ruled Burma, one month after a high-level US diplomatic visit aimed at improving bilateral ties.
On Wednesday, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was allowed to meet three senior executives in the National League for Democracy (NLD) for the first time in several years. She also met privately with the visiting US diplomats and has stepped up her contacts with the junta while separately appealing her latest 18-month sentence to house arrest. The Supreme Court hasn’t decided whether to hear the appeal.
Analysts say the Burmese military is determined to tightly control a planned political transition next year, when the impoverished Southeast Asian country is due to hold its first elections since 1990. This transition is likely to trump any desire to build common ground with the Obama administration, which has sought to engage with the regime while sticking with economic and political sanctions.
A key question remains the role of Ms. Suu Kyi and the NLD in the elections. The party won the 1990 poll that was later annulled. The US and its allies have pushed for Suu Kyi’s release and participation, but analysts and diplomats say her popularity is seen as posing a direct threat to a military-guided process.
This balancing act may explain the air of détente in Burma, if indeed there is room for compromise on the fate of a democracy icon who has been in detention for much of the last two decades.
"It's hard to say there's been a real thaw, only that the junta are interested in improving relations with Washington and realize that some gestures towards (Suu Kyi) are essential if this is going to happen,” says Thant Myint-U, an author on Burma’s political history and former United Nations official.
In what may be another such gesture, authorities in Burma recently gave a green light to the broadcast of ‘Traffic’, an MTV documentary that is part of a regional anti-human-trafficking campaign. The 2007 film was funded by the US Agency for International Development, whose logo is prominent in the campaign, and has already been screened nationally and promoted at live concerts across Asia.
The film, which includes a Burmese couple talking off-camera about being forced to work without pay in Thailand, was screened at a ceremony Friday at a hotel in Rangoon, Burma’s largest city. A state broadcaster has agreed to show the film and it will also be distributed on DVD and rebroadcast.
Approval by Burma to screen ‘Traffic’ came within the last month, says Simon Goff, the campaign’s executive director. Censors demanded cuts to a segment on sex trafficking in the Philippines that included graphic descriptions. But the section on the Burmese couple, who were eventually rescued from the Thai factory, hasn’t been changed, he said.
In its annual report on trafficking, the US State Department lists Burma as a ‘Tier 3’ country, the lowest category, due to its failure to tackle the flow of people sold across its international borders. Only a handful of countries are in this category. At least one million Burmese are estimated to live in Thailand, including those who have fled from conflict areas and have been resettled in refugee camps, as well as those trafficked into exploitative work.
More concrete concessions by Burma's regime, including the release of elderly and sick political prisoners and more regular contacts between Suu Kyi and the NLD, would show that it is serious, says Soe Aung, a spokesman for the Forum for Democracy in Burma, a campaign group in Thailand. The NLD hasn’t been allowed to hold a party congress in many years and its members have suffered repeated harassment by authorities, he complains.
“We can’t tell if there’s been any progress,” he says.