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Political dialogue in Myanmar

No breakthrough in sight

IT HAS BEEN TEN MONTHS since representatives of Myanmar's military regime - the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) - and pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi held the first in a series of secret talks. Although contacts have continued, there has been no political breakthrough. Indeed, apart from the release of less than 200 of approximately 2,000 political prisoners, and the fact that Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has been allowed to reopen some offices in Yangon and elsewhere, little has happened. This lack of progress, and the incompatible positions of those involved in the dialogue, has inevitably reinforced suspicions that the SPDC's willingness to talk marks little more than a tactical response to diplomatic pressure and a failing economy, in dire need of foreign aid and investment.

If no progress can be discerned within the next two months, the United Nations (UN) is thought likely to pass measures calling for substantive steps towards democracy, while the European Union (EU) and US may introduce tougher sanctions. Nonetheless, outside pressure may not be enough to force the junta to respond to popular demands for reform. Indeed, in the absence of a severe split within what remains a well-entrenched SPDC, it seems likely that the present order will be maintained, perhaps in an altered guise but with the generals still very much in power. In this case, the NLD, which in May 1990 captured 392 out of 485 contested seats in subsequently abrogated polls to a proposed national assembly, will continue to operate on the margins.

Senior SPDC officials now maintain that the 1990 polls were never intended to elect a national assembly, but to select some representatives to a larger body charged with drafting a new constitution. This contradicts statements by intelligence chief Lieutenant-General Khin Nyunt, who at the time of the polls stressed that the military would hand power to whichever party won. Ohn Gyaw, then foreign minister, made similar statements before the UN General Assembly in 1989. However, these assurances were forgotten when the NLD secured overwhelming popular support and the military-backed National Unity Party garnered enough votes for just ten seats. Two months after the election, the junta announced that a 700-strong Constituent Assembly would be formed with the intention of drafting a constitution that was expected to guarantee the military a dominant role in government. While the body was to include some members of parliament elect, most participants were handpicked by the military. NLD members who opposed this unexpected initiative - the overwhelming majority - were arrested, and many others fled the country. The outside world protested, and foreign aid, which had been cut off since the military shot pro-democracy demonstrators in August-September 1988, was not resumed. Suu Kyi, who had been placed under house arrest in July 1989, was not released until July 1995, only to be confined to her home again in September 2000.

Motivating factors

Myanmar's military authorities have looked at membership of the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) as a means of warding off foreign criticism and securing their hold on power. To the SPDC, membership is seen as strengthening its claims to legitimacy at home, but ASEAN's attractiveness to it also lay in its ethos of mutual non-interference in domestic affairs. However, Myanmar's accession in July 1997 coincided with the onset of the regional economic crisis, when ASEAN's lacklustre response to the turmoil lost it much international standing. Myanmar's poor record on human rights and democracy soon made it a burden to ASEAN in its dealings with the West, whose goodwill and practical assistance were needed to recover from the crisis. Several meetings between the EU and ASEAN had to be cancelled because of disagreements over Myanmar's participation. When Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad visited Myanmar in January 2001 he stated bluntly to his hosts that they had become an embarrassment to ASEAN. Having been the key ASEAN leader supporting Myanmar's accession, Mahathir has to some extent been held responsible for difficulties in ASEAN's relations with the West. However, his frequent criticisms of the West have also given Mahathir credibility and influence with the SPDC. Mahathir's visit coincided with the arrival in Yangon of the UN's new special envoy to Myanmar, veteran Malaysian diplomat Razali Ismail, who on his return to New York announced that talks between junta members and Suu Kyi had been underway since October 200.

Economic factors have also played an important role in precipitating the talks. The country is desperate for foreign aid and investment. Poor export performance and a sharp decline in foreign reserves have been accompanied by accelerating inflation. The Myanmar kyat, which in May 2001 crumpled to a record street-level low of 900 to the dollar (compared with the official rate of 6.3), has recovered somewhat in the past month. However, prices of daily commodities are still rising. To compound matters, an acute shortage of oil has forced the authorities to ration daily purchases of petrol. Lacking the foreign currency to cover oil imports, the government has begun discussions with Vietnam on a possible barter trade agreement whereby Myanmar would pay in teak and other hardwood for Vietnamese oil. Yet, such improvised measures will not solve Myanmar's economic problems.

Within days of Razali's announcement that SPDC-NLD talks were underway, Khin Nyunt made a telling appeal to the international community to restore aid, stressing that 'positive developments are taking place'. Western countries are unlikely to be swayed by such statements. In July, EU External Affairs Commissioner Chris Patten said that unless there is significant progress on political issues, the EU's position will remain unchanged. In addition, the US Congress is debating a bill proposing a complete ban on all imports from Myanmar. The NLD, meanwhile, is understood to be anxious that the SPDC is not 'rewarded' for the talks in any way until all political prisoners have been released. At the current pace of prisoner release, it could take up to ten years before all have been set free.

Suu Kyi appears to be taking advantage of an opportunity to secure the release of her supporters, while the SPDC is playing along in an attempt to please its ASEAN partners and try to secure foreign aid. Contrary to regional reports, there has been nothing to indicate that the two sides have discussed power-sharing agreements or how the country might be governed in future. Indeed, government officials have made it clear to visiting foreign journalists that there can be no talk of such matters as an 'interim government' until a new constitution has been adopted. This suggests that the aims that motivated the formation of the Constituent Assembly in the early 1990s i.e. the formal entrenchment of the military's political dominance, have not been reversed or even modified. Nor has the position of the NLD changed. The 1990 election victory remains the NLD's main claim to legitimacy. By accepting a role in a mainly government-appointed Constituent Assembly, it would reduce its own status to merely one of several political organisations. It would also risk losing popular support if it were seen to be giving in to SPDC demands. Thus, the views of the respective sides remain incompatible, leaving little or no room for compromise.

SPDC wrangling

The prospects for a breakthrough are further constrained by disagreements over tactics between Khin Nyunt and army commander General Maung Aye. Khin Nyunt seems to believe that the best way to end Myanmar's isolation is to talk to - and manipulate - the opposition. By giving the impression that delicate talks are under way, the junta has to some degree been able to soften international criticism (Japan, for instance, resumed some aid in January). By keeping the content of the talks secret, Khin Nyunt may hope to drive a wedge between Suu Kyi and her supporters, owing to the speculation and suspicion that secrecy inevitably generates. Khin Nyunt's manoeuvres stand in stark contrast to Muang Aye's direct, military approach to the problem. He, and the regional commanders he controls, believe that any dialogue with the NLD only creates confusion in the army's ranks. They are well aware that a majority of the army's rank-and-file voted for the NLD in 1990 after which stricter political controls were imposed on soldiers and lower-ranking officers. The best way to deal with the NLD, Muang Aye argues, is to crush it.

These differences are all the more significant in view of the wider rivalry between Khin Nyunt and Muang Aye. SPDC Chairman General Than Shwe, the junta's key leader, is currently acting as a stabilising and neutralising force, but is in ill heath and appears eager to retire. If he were to die in office or resign, Muang Aye, as the SPDC's vice-chairman, would automatically succeed him. However, Khin Nyunt is known to have political ambitions and would probably try to strengthen his power base to counter Muang Aye. The problem for Khin Nyunt is that he has no real power base within the armed forces. His base is the intelligence apparatus primarily the Directorate of the Defence Services Intelligence, and its think-tank, the Office of Strategic Services - which has not always been popular with the military. Nonetheless, despite their disagreements, Khin Nyunt and Muang Aye will be careful not to allow an open conflict to develop between them, which could undermine the military rule they both favour.

Fear of change

At the heart of the SPDC's dilemma is the fact that, after 40 years in power, the military has created a parallel state within the state - a society in which army personnel enjoy a position far more privileged than even their counterparts in countries such as Thailand and Indonesia. Democracy is seen not just as a threat to this order, but to generals personally. Many generals are alleged to have committed or sanctioned atrocities and other crimes, and have much to fear from greater transparency and accountability. The fear of retribution is particularly acute. In early August, Mahathir reportedly told former Japanese prime minister Yoshiro Mori that the SPDC will not hand power to a civilian government unless there is a guarantee that no reprisals would be mounted. Mahathir's statement did not take into consideration that the NLD has indicated on numerous occasions that there will be no reprisals, nor that the generals evidently have no trust in such assurances. In these circumstances, the SPDC will continue to view Myanmar's diplomatic isolation and economic distress as more attractive than political change.

This article first appeared in IISS Strategic Comments, August 2001

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