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What Thein Sein promised Suu Kyi

Asia Times - September 29, 2011

Larry Jagan, Bangkok An emerging rapprochement between Myanmar President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has set a new tone over the country's historically military dominated political landscape. The two met on August 19 and details now emerging from that closed-door encounter indicate that major concessions could be in the cards in the weeks ahead.

Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who has spent 15 of the last 21 years under house arrest, recently told a small group of supporters outside of her National League for Democracy (NLD) party headquarters she believes there is an "opportunity for change". She has met and made public appearances with top government officials and insiders say that more meetings are imminent, perhaps as early as next week.

The high-level meetings, a parliamentary motion and recent official pronouncements have raised speculation that Thein Sein's government is poised to release over 2,000 political prisoners, a major sticking point to his winning international recognition for the country's recent transition from military to democratic rule. Many of those held are affiliated with Suu Kyi's NLD or other political groups opposed to military rule.

Myanmar Foreign Minister Wanna Maung Lwin told the United Nations General Assembly in New York earlier this week that the government intended to free more prisoners in the near future, though he did not mention whether political prisoners would be included. A government official who requested anonymity claimed they may be released in three batches, with more than 200 set to walk free within next week, including renowned comedian and blogger Zaganar.

If true, the release of political prisoners would send a clear signal both domestically and internationally that Thein Sein's government, formed in March after last year's elections, is following through on his democratic reform vows. "There is enough to make us cautiously optimistic, with the stress on optimistic," a senior International Labor Organization official in Yangon told Asia Times Online.

Although tight-lipped about the details of his visit, which included talks with both President Thein Sein and Suu Kyi, US special envoy to Myanmar Derek Mitchell was likewise upbeat about the prospects for change. At the end of an earlier visit, Mitchell said "genuine and concrete reforms" were needed before Washington would consider reciprocating. Thein Sein is lobbying for the end of US and European economic sanctions.

"I think it would be fair to say that winds of change are clearly blowing through [Myanmar]," Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell told reporters in Washington earlier this month. "The extent of it is still unclear, but everyone who's gone there recognizes that there are changes." Significantly, many of the government's concessions have come without formal announcement or legal commitment. To mark Democracy Day, the government unblocked many censored international news sites, including the BBC, Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), and Burmese language broadcasts of Radio Free Asia and Voice of America. The move followed an earlier relaxation of blocks on Skype, Yahoo! and Youtube.

The list of small incremental changes is long, though few if any have been enacted by law. The most critical change, however, is that Thein Sein, the country's quasi-civilian leader and former military general, seems willing to involve Suu Kyi in the country's political future. This represents a sharp reversal of the outgoing junta's stance, which banned her NLD after it refused to participate in last November's polls.

While Suu Kyi said she was happy with the outcome of her August 19 meeting with Thein Sein, few details of the substance of the talks have been revealed. The two met privately "four-eyes", as Asian diplomats like to call it for a little over an hour. Atmospherics and appearance matter in Myanmar's cultural context and both came out of the meeting relaxed and smiling.

More symbolically, a photo of General Aung San, Myanmar's independence hero and Suu Kyi's assassinated father, was hanging in the presidential palace where they met. Over the past decade, former ruling General Than Shwe had tried to remove Aung San's name and image from the national memory. Many analysts have perceived the reemergence of Aung San's portrait as a significant sign of change.

"It was important to show the Lady that we are willing to work with her," said a government official close to the president, referring to Suu Kyi. "We see her as a potential partner, not an adversary."

Another message apparently sent was that Suu Kyi is viewed by the new regime as an important public figure rather than a politician or leader of the legally banned NLD. During the closed door meeting, Thein Sein apparently talked about the role she could play in the future, according to sources in Naypyidaw who spoke on condition of anonymity.

They characterized the meeting as more trust-building exercise than negotiation, where both leaders laid out scenarios for the process of genuine reform and democracy to take root. Thein Sein apparently assured Suu Kyi that although her NLD party is currently illegal, it would be left alone and she would be free to travel freely inside the country, the sources said. Thein Sein's wife even invited her to an informal working dinner with other ministers' wives, they said.

Prisoner politics

The political prisoner issue was high on Suu Kyi's agenda, and she apparently told the president that there could be no forward movement without their unconditional release. Thein Sein's advisors know that this is also the key to improved relations with the outside world, including their neighbors in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). A mass release would likely smooth the way for Myanmar to take ASEAN's chairmanship for 2014, a decision that will be made later this year.

Whether Thein Sein has the power to follow through, however, is still in question. Former junta leader Than Shwe has made it clear on at least two occasions once just after last November's elections last and again earlier this year before Thein Sein was officially sworn in that the release of political prisoners and jailed former military intelligence officers was non-negotiable.

However, a recent motion to free political prisoners adopted by a majority of parliament may have set the seal for the release of at least some of them. Analysts say it was highly significant that the lower house speaker Thura Shwe Mann the former third top general in the ruling junta was the one that steered the motion through parliament.

When it appeared the motion was set to be rejected, Thura Shwe Mann called a 15-minute recess on the pretense the computer screens which showed the voting results were down. During the break he apparently lobbied the military parliamentarians who make up 25% of parliament a quota set by the new constitution adopted in a sham referendum in 2008 to support the proposal. It then passed with a large majority.

Thura Shwe Mann, formerly seen as Than Shwe's heir apparent, strongly supports the new president, according to sources close to him. They say he sees the release of political prisoners issue as something he can support that would make a difference, both domestically and internationally. His support is crucial because for various reasons the government cannot be seen to be bowing to international pressure on the issue.

Thein Sein's and Suu Kyi's meeting also touched on private matters, according to inside government sources. Significantly, Thein Sein has recently intervened to save from demolition the now dilapidated house in which Aung San and his family once lived in Pymina while he was leading the battle for independence against British colonialists. Suu Kyi reportedly sent the president an old photo of the house with her standing outside of it when she was a very young child as a token of appreciation.

Diplomats in Yangon who have recently met Suu Kyi all say that she is confident about the future and optimistic about the possibility of genuine change. Thein Sein can be trusted, he is genuinely trying to reform the country, and needs international support, she has told several foreign envoys.

Long time observers see similarities between the current warming trend and previous secret talks between Suu Kyi and former military intelligence chief and prime minister Khin Nyunt. Those talks led to Suu Kyi's release from house arrest in May 2002 but little else. She was rearrested a year later after her entourage was attacked by armed pro-government thugs who massacred many of her supporters. Khin Nyunt was purged in 2004 and remains under house arrest.

While arguments persist as to whether those talks represented a genuine opening, there is little doubt that the lack of international support for Khin Nyunt's gambit contributed its demise. This time, diplomats say, the international community, including the US, is keen not to make the same mistake.

Like then, there are still military hardliners waiting in the wings ready to pounce if given the opportunity. These same hardliners now led by the Vice President Thin Aung Myint Oo are apparently not pleased by Thein Sein's overtures towards Suu Kyi. Some hardline ministers apparently did not know the meeting had taken place until they saw it on the evening television news, according to government insiders.

Many diplomats and analysts believe Thein Sein's conciliatory gestures are genuine and a mass release of political prisoners would set the stage for substantive talks with Suu Kyi towards national reconciliation. Government insiders claim another meeting between the two is tentatively scheduled for after next week's first phase release.

However some believe another military coup is also possible, particularly if the army decides change, including the release of political prisoners, risks instability. For the moment, the Armed Forces Commander Gen Min Aung Hlaing has signaled his support for Thein Sein and Thura Shwe Mann, but the military's sustained support is by no means certain.

That's especially true if former military supremo Than Shwe starts to feel threatened by the change underway, including engagement with Suu Kyi, and decides to intervene. Under the 2008 constitution, the military may legally seize power in the name of upholding national security. "If we fail, we'll end up in jail," said a senior member of government on condition of anonymity.

[Larry Jagan previously covered Myanmar politics for the British Broadcasting Corporation. He is currently a freelance journalist based in Bangkok.]

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