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Optimism Fades

By Bertil Lintner, Chiang Mai

In the first week of June, the United Nations special envoy to Burma made his second visit to Rangoon, but little remains of the cautious optimism that emerged from his first trip in January. During his four days in the Burmese capital, Razali met with Foreign Minister Win Aung and Lt-Gen Khin Nyunt, the powerful head of the country's military intelligence apparatus and a leading member of the ruling junta, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). He also held two meetings with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. But the likelihood of a dialogue between the two sides-the main purpose of Razali's mission-now seems more remote than ever. Khin Nyunt is said to favour some kind of talks to appease the international community, while the Burmese army's regional commanders are opposed to them. They maintain that rumours of talks-which have not been officially acknowledged-'cause confusion among the ranks.'

Razali reportedly told a Rangoon-based diplomat that 'there will be a transition from military to civilian government in two to four years.' But it now also seems clear that this does not mean any kind of power-sharing agreement with Aung San Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), which eleven years ago won a landslide victory in Burma's only free election since 1960. Meanwhile, Burma's military rulers have been building up their own mass organisation, the Union Development and Solidarity Association (UDSA), which now has several million members. Membership is compulsory for civil servants and other state employees, and others are coerced into joining by promises of privileges and outright threats.

According to well-placed sources in Rangoon, the present junta is preparing for a scenario where they would act from behind a civilian façade provided by the USDA, in the same way as the first junta, the Revolutionary Council that seized power in 1962, retreated behind a supposedly civilian political party, the Burma Socialist Programme Party, in 1974. There is no role or room for Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD in that plan, the sources say.

Support for the SPDC appears to be coming from other nations in the region, notably Razali's home country Malaysia, which has quietly promised to develop Burma's offshore gas fields in the Gulf of Martaban. Although Razali's mandate comes from the United Nations, his views seem to concur more with those of his government. In private discussions with Western diplomats, he has criticised 'the Western view' of Burma, and even said that the West is paying too much attention to Aung San Suu Kyi.

Singapore also has strong economic interests in Burma, as does China, which has emerged as the SPDC's main supporter in the region. For the generals in Rangoon, Asia may be enough. In December last year, the junta stated in an internal memo that trade with Western counties is "insignificant." For exports that would be affected by sanctions imposed by the International Labour Organisation, such as pulses and textiles, the SPDC outlined plans to employ covert trans shipment through Malaysia, Singapore and other regional allies.

WATCHPOINT: With support from the region, and an increasingly stifled NLD, the SPDC appears confident that it can resist Western pressure for change.

This article first appeared in Asian Analysis, July 2001

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