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The eye of the storm

Irrawaddy - October 7, 2011

Aung Zaw For the last two decades, Snr-Gen Than Shwe's regime devastated Burma in much the same manner that Cyclone Nargis devastated the Irrawaddy Delta in 2008. The junta's oppression and mismanagement was a political, economic and human rights disaster for the Burmese people, and the sham election in 2010 gave every indication that the military authoritarianism that has battered the country would not leave anytime soon. But then in August, President Thein Sein invited Aung San Suu Kyi to Naypyidaw for a face-to-face meeting, and the pro-democracy leader seemed to emerge from the conference having discovered the calm at the center of the storm.

The meeting in Naypyidaw appeared to be a spontaneous, home grown initiative that was not sponsored or organized by the UN or any other foreign body, but rather was initiated by Thein Sein and his key supporting players in the new government. It was the first time that Suu Kyi and the new president had met, and they spoke cordially for about an hour and then had dinner together. Burmese state media reported on the meeting and showed video footage and photographs of the two leaders sitting beneath a picture of Suu Kyi's father, Burma's independence hero Gen Aung San, who was the founder of the Burmese armed forces.

Suu Kyi was reportedly heartened to see her father's photo displayed in the offices of the new government, and the tone of the state-run newspaper report of her meeting with Thein Sein was genial and polite, using the Nobel laureate's full name preceded by "Daw," a term of respect for Burmese females.

"The president and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi tried to find potential common ground to cooperate in the interests of the nation and the people, putting aside different views," reported the The New Light of Myanmar.

The news report did not go into any detail about what "potential common grounds" were discussed, but sources say one area of possible agreement was the need to find some acceptable manner for the impoverished nation to receive additional humanitarian assistance from foreign countries and organizations. The two reportedly discussed more contentious issues as well, including political prisoners, the 2008 Constitution, the 1990 election and the legal status of Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD).

Some analysts and dissidents opined that the meeting was merely a show meant to persuade the members of the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (Asean) to grant Burma the association's chair in 2014, the UN to withdraw its call for a Commission of Inquiry into human rights abuses in Burma and Western governments to drop their sanctions.

In addition, the role played by Suu Kyi's long-time nemesis, Than Shwe, is still unclear. It is widely believed that he still pulls the strings with respect to the military and national security, but it's less certain how involved he remains in domestic political, social and economic matters. Whether the meeting between Thein Sein and Suu Kyi was a meaningful gesture or merely a publicity stunt undertaken with Than Shwe's approval, or possibly even direction, remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: the meeting injected a sense of hope into the people of Burma and the international community.

It is notable that Suu Kyi's body language changed after she met with Thein Sein a broad smile returned to her face and she seemed more cheerful than prior to the meeting. In addition, her lieutenants, including veteran activist and former political prisoner Win Tin, were more upbeat than before and softened their tone. Despite the lack of specifics to emerge publicly about the meeting, the change in demeanor by both Suu Kyi and her staunchest pro-democracy supporters is a strong indication that the discussions between Suu Kyi and Thein Sein were substantive.

Since Suu Kyi's visit to Naypyidaw, several other events have occurred that indicate both she and the government are seeking to establish an atmosphere more conducive to exploring the "potential common grounds" the Burmese state media reported on.

First, the government created a National Human Rights Commission, which by its very formation at least acknowledged that human rights are an issue in Burma, although the commission itself is comprised of ambassadors who served under the repressive regime and strongly defended its poor human rights record at the UN and in other international forums. Then to the shock of many, Suu Kyi accepted the invitation of Zaw Zaw one of Burma's most powerful tycoons who is close to several regime hard-liners and is on the US sanctions list to sit next to him at a football match.

In addition, for the first time in 23 years, Burma's notorious censorship board allowed an article written by Suu Kyi to be published in the Pyithu Khit News Journal, and the Messenger News ran an exclusive interview with the Nobel laureate as a cover story as well although the censors took 10 months before allowing the interview to be published and cut all of its political content. Burmese officials also lifted a ban on exiled media websites, including The Irrawaddy, and other international media websites, but access to the sites is still sporadic and some analysts question whether the new Internet openness is permanent or only temporary.

Then when the International Day of Democracy rolled around, not only did the new government allow Suu Kyi and the NLD to commemorate the event, it held its own ceremony featuring speeches by former top junta generals, who are currently leading members of Parliament, singing the praises of the democratic form of government.

The totality of these events have left many, both inside and outside of Burma, exclaiming that the dark skies of repression over Burma are rapidly clearing and sunny political weather is near at hand. But skeptics point out that encircling all of these displays of openness are the same instances of authoritarian abuse that were present during the black era of the junta, and there is no sign that those abuses will dissipate anytime soon.

At the top of the list of unresolved issues are Burma's undemocratic 2008 Constitution and election laws, the more than 2,000 political prisoners held in Burmese jails, the ongoing human rights abuses by the military and the escalating armed conflicts with ethnic groups.

The lop-sided terms of the military-drafted 2008 Constitution were the main reason that Suu Kyi and the NLD boycotted the 2010 election, and opposition members have publicly called for the document to be amended to eliminate the provisions giving the military 25 percent of the seats in Parliament and establishing the military dominated National Defense and Security Council, provide more transparency with respect to the actions of the Executive Branch, put more power in the hands of the Parliament and be more inclusive of the general population. The problem is that any amendments to the Constitution require the approval of more than 75 percent of the MPs. This means the military must approve the amendments, which in turn means that Thein Sein and Suu Kyi can talk all they want, but unless the generals are on board with proposed reforms, the Constitution will remain the same.

Another thorny political issue is the status of the NLD, which won the 1990 general election in a landslide but was not allowed to form a new government and assume power, then was officially dissolved by the junta last year for refusing to register for the 2010 election. Despite the fact that it has been disbanded, the party continues to operate in defiance of attempts at intimidation and threats from the authorities. And while it is impossible to go back to 1990, it seems the NLD leaders and dissidents want to see the Burmese government publicly acknowledge that year's election outcome.

With respect to political prisoners, the new government appears to be taking the old approach of resolving the issue by denying it even exists in the face of airtight factual evidence. Some government ministers have audaciously claimed that there are no political prisoners at all, while others have argued that even if some prisoners are being held for their political views, the number is in the hundreds, rather than the over 2,000 documented by the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP).

In denying that the government holds a large number of political prisoners, if any, top Burmese officials point to the fact that many included in the list compiled by the AAPP were sent to prison for violating the country's criminal laws. But this is the reddest of red herrings, because these "criminal laws" that they refer to include the vague and draconian state security laws such as the Electronics Act and other acts outlawing "illegal associations" and covering the "disturbance of peace and stability." Under these laws, any activist student, politician, monk or ethnic leader engaged in opposition political activity could be charged with a criminal violation at any time, and even if they weren't so engaged, the junta often framed them to make it appear as if they were.

The new government seems to be equally two-faced about conflicts in the ethnic areas, where human rights abuses such as using forced labor and rape as a method of intimidation continue to be documented. While professing to want peace, Thein Sein has labeled the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) "a mere insurgent group" and blamed them for the current armed conflicts even though the government has encroached on the KIA's long-established territory, sold off Kachin State's natural resources and evicted tens of thousands of Kachin State residents from their land to make way for the massive Myitsone Dam.

The Burmese military seems equally determined to escalate the conflicts with ethnic armed militias in Karen and Shan states, where troop reinforcements and skirmishes are reported on a weekly basis.

All of these issues must be resolved if the overarching goal of "national reconciliation" is to be achieved. So despite the top-level meetings, conferences and speeches, as well as the slivers of additional media freedom, there is still a long way to go before Burma can say that meaningful change has occurred.

Some international actors, such as US Special Representative and Policy Coordinator on Burma Derek Mitchell, are informed and cautious enough to understand this. Mitchell visited Burma in September and held talks with government officials, key members of Parliament, ethnic leaders, civil society groups based inside and outside of Burma and Suu Kyi. He raised issues regarding the detention of political prisoners, the government's hostilities toward ethnic minorities and Burma's military link-ups with North Korea. Though Mitchell said he was encouraged and pleased with the quality of openness of the exchanges, when his meetings were completed, he urged the government to prove critics who remained doubtful about reform in Burma wrong by taking concrete steps with respect to the larger issues.

"I offered respectfully that the government should take concrete actions in a timely fashion to demonstrate its sincerity and genuine commitment to reform and national reconciliation," Mitchell said in a statement, and this message was soon repeated by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Mitchell said that the possible steps included "releasing all political prisoners unconditionally, engaging in meaningful outreach to the political opposition, including Aung San Suu Kyi, and engaging in dialogue rather than armed conflict with ethnic minority groups." He did not say directly that the US would lift sanctions if Burma made some progress and in fact the US recently extended its sanctions but did say, "...if the government takes genuine and concrete action, the United States will respond in kind."

Others in the international community have been much more sanguine than the US about the prospects for reform in Burma. The Brussels-based International Crises Group (ICG) recently issued a report, "Myanmar: Major Reform Underway," which called on the international community to support reform in Burma and the Thein Sein government.

"What is important to recognize now is that because the situation has changed both inside the country and in the region, so must the policies and tactics of those trying to use Asean as a lever to reform Myanmar [Burma]," ICG said in its 21-page report.

The report also said stated that Than Shwe no longer plays a role in day-to-day government decisions and has stopped "exercising any discernible influence over events," except on one occasion in July when he reportedly summoned hard-liner and First Vice President Tin Aung Myint Oo to his residence and told him to "stop obstructing the work of the government."

"This has given the president the confidence and space to implement his reform agenda," said the report, although even some reform-minded government officials have warned that Thien Sein must tread lightly or risk a backlash from the hard-line factions in both the government and military, who remain very powerful.

ICG claimed, however, that Thein Sein's reform efforts enjoy the backing of armed forces commander-in-chief Gen Min Aung Hlaing and key government ministers, including the defense and home ministers. The report added that there had been the possibility of a major release of political prisoners in May when Thein Sein announced a one-year clemency for all prisoners, but that did not happen due to disagreements within the top leadership. It also predicted that Asean is highly likely to grant its 2014 chairmanship to Burma, concluding that denying this request by the new Burmese government would deal a blow to the reformist group led by Thein Sein and encourage "reactionary elements in the administration."

In addition to pushing for international support for Thein Sein and his new government, some in the international community have been attempting to sideline Suu Kyi. In fact, the German ambassador to Burma, Julius Georg Luy, has for months been trying to relegate Suu Kyi to the same status as representatives of the small democratic parties that Burma's military regime allowed to win parliamentary seats during the sham election in order to lend legitimacy to the polls.

On March 14, the European ambassadors to Burma held a closed-door meeting to discuss their positions regarding the then upcoming EU sanctions review. A well-informed source revealed that the German ambassador argued against mentioning Suu Kyi's name in official EU communications.

Then after being informed that EU ambassadors were planning to meet with Suu Kyi, the German diplomat said that they should not meet the NLD leader separately, but only together with representatives of other opposition parties. Together with his Belgian and Spanish colleagues, he argued that other democratic and ethnic forces might be offended if it became public that Suu Kyi was being afforded special treatment.

In response, the UK ambassador rightly pushed for a separate meeting with Suu Kyi, pointing out that she is still the undisputed leader of the democratic opposition a fact that EU member states should not deny. Germany, however, still believed that the goal of such a meeting should be to seek a wide range of views from several interlocutors, without favoring anyone in particular. The Germans must have been puzzled, then, when Thein Sein decided to hold a one-on-one meeting with Suu Kyi and she was given a VIP reception when she arrived solo at the concurrent Naypyidaw-hosted economic conference.

Despite the attempts by some to sideline her, there is no doubt that Suu Kyi is still important to the Burmese people and the majority of those in the international community. US envoy Mitchell addressed the issue directly after his visit with the pro-democracy leader: "I met with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and leaders of the National League for Democracy to discuss their perspectives on recent developments in the country, the future of their party, and US policy approaches," he said. "I was reminded consistently during my visit that Daw Suu remains deeply important to the citizens of this country, Burman and ethnic minority alike, and that any credible reform effort must include her participation."

There is also no doubt that the regime still sees Suu Kyi as the main political opposition leader, as attested to by her meeting with Thein Sein. But it cannot be denied that after two decades of little apparent progress, even some members of the Burmese opposition wonder whether Suu Kyi, who is now 66 years old, can regain the momentum that propelled the NLD to victory in 1990 and deliver current reforms with respect to the big ticket items of true democracy and genuine human rights and equality.

During the nationwide uprising in 1988, Suu Kyi reluctantly entered the fray, saying that as independence hero Aung San's daughter, she could not remain indifferent to all that was happening in Burma at that time. Addressing the hundreds of thousands of people who came to listen to her first speech in September 1988 at Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon, she declared: "This national crisis could in fact be called the second struggle for national independence."

This time, however, the adversary was not the foreign colonialists that her father faced in the first struggle for independence, but home-grown dictators who, both before and after Suu Kyi spoke those fateful words in 1988, have reduced the resource-rich nation to the ranks of one of the world's poorest pariah states. The question now is whether Suu Kyi can finally beat the odds and succeed as her father did, or whether her highly principled approach will doom her "second struggle" to failure.

Critics say that Suu Kyi lacks the pragmatism of Gen Aung San and doesn't have a comprehensive understanding of Burma's political complexity. They have warned that if she doesn't change her tactics and strategy, she could become an obstacle to progress in Burma.

Some opposition politicians even criticized her stance on the election last year, saying Suu Kyi should have created a proxy party to participate in the polls and endorsed politicians who wanted to run in the election. She has thus far been opaque about the 2015 election, not saying one way or the other whether her rejection of the last election means she would rule out running in the next, especially if the government does not change the Constitution and elections laws that spurred the last boycott. This may not seem like a pressing question at the moment, but many of her supporters have begun to wonder if she has even considered her strategy for the coming years.

Suu Kyi has sent similarly ambiguous messages with respect to Western sanctions placed on the government and its leaders and cronies. For instance, she appears to remain broadly supportive of measures aimed at putting pressure on the ruling regime, even as she calls on would-be Western investors to ensure that their investments are ethical.

Observers find it difficult to decipher whether this means she sees the lifting of sanctions as inevitable, or is warning investors to stay out, given the fact that "ethical" investment remains impossible under the country's current circumstances.

Some critics have also questioned the amount of time and energy Suu Kyi expends on meeting different Burmese constituencies and foreigners at her office and delivering her message to a wide variety of domestic and international forums, arguing that it would be more effective to concentrate her efforts on selected groups. Her supporters, however, understand that it is important for her to meet many different players in Burmese society and the international community in order to hear different opinions, rather than just living in her comfort zone where she can easily find admirers and supporters who have blind faith in her leadership. In that respect, some say she needs to negotiate with the government to allow leading NLD members to travel outside of Burma to understand more about regional affairs and international relations regarding Burma. They argue that if Burma's leaders intend to build a democratic society, they should allow NLD leaders to travel freely outside of Burma.

Possibly more than any other criticism, Suu Kyi's supporters and skeptics alike want to see her recruit more young leaders to lead the party so that she is not spread so thin and a new generation of leaders who understand the modern world can be groomed to lead the pro-democracy opposition into the future. In doing so, however, one challenge that Suu Kyi will face is that from some of the younger generation of activists. Given that the military remains firmly in control of the country and continues to serve the interests of the elite at the expense of everyone else, some have come to regard her non-violent approach as a dead end. They feel that another confrontation, which inevitably will include another bout of bloodshed, cannot be avoided.

Opposition activists are well aware that when Suu Kyi jumped into the Burmese political fray at the time of the 1988 national uprising, she joined the student-led movement when it was already in progress. Even though she courageously took the helm of the overall opposition movement, formed the NLD, stood up to the generals, risked her life at Depayin and endured years of house arrest, she was never the one leading the street demonstrations and braving the bullets in 1988 it was the students, and in 2007 it was the students and the monks. The generals are aware of this as well, which is probably the main reason why she is free but the 88 Generation Student group leaders remain in remote prisons.

But Suu Kyi, who spent most of her time prior to 1988 abroad, has learned and matured a lot since her first speech at Shwedagon Pagoda. The harsh reality of Burmese politics has taught her to build up her political muscles, she has learned how to converse with and send messages to her adversary, and after dissidents and exiled Burmese whispered into her ear that she needs to step up and be more pragmatic at the negotiating table, she began to view small steps towards reform, such as those that have taken place recently, as potential cracks in the military's foundation that could be exploited for future change. Suu Kyi's charisma has morphed into a cool gravitas, with both she and her NLD aides appearing savvier and less likely to be bullied during the recent talks.

Suu Kyi has also gained more support from ethnic groups, including the Kachin, who over the last four months have been engaged in armed conflict with government forces. In June, the Kachin leaders held a public ceremony at their headquarters to mark Suu Kyi's birthday, signaling strong support for her. For her part, Suu Kyi has offered to be a peace mediator between ethnic groups and the government.

All in all, while the olive branches held out by Thein Sein's government have somewhat quieted the seas of opposition discontent, nobody knows exactly what the government's motivations are and whether true reform will follow, and therefore it is difficult to find the appropriate way to characterize the recent maneuvers. Suu Kyi probably did so as well as possible on Sept 15, when she marked the International Day of Democracy with a rousing speech at the NLD headquarters in Rangoon that included the following statement:

"I believe we have reached a point where there is an opportunity for change," she told the assembled crowd of around 200, which included representatives from various political parties, members of the 88 Generation Students group and the national media.

Significantly, Suu Kyi did not say that anything that has happened to date constituted meaningful change. Although her meeting with Thein Sein raised hopes and expectations at home and abroad, she is more aware than anyone of the Burmese government's past use of the divide and rule strategy, and of the fact that the regime used meetings with her to manipulate domestic and international opinion. She is also aware that every time in the past she has been invited to meet top government leaders and the people began to get excited that the winds of change were beginning to blow in Burma, she was afterwards detained and placed under house arrest.

With this in mind, Suu Kyi is sure to have her own time limit for the current talks, and will likely pull out if they do not bear fruit within that period.

Speaking to Washington-based Radio Free Asia, she said that she is willing to be exploited if it is for the sake of the country. But if change isn't delivered and the people of Burma and Suu Kyi are left frustrated once again, upheaval is on the horizon. With the arrival of Thein Sein's new government, the Burmese people not only want to see a change in the political weather, they also want predictability.

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