e-mail us
Meetings between Burma military, opposition reported

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Bangkok, Thailand

The adage “It’s darkest before the dawn” could be playing out in Burma.

Recent reports suggest that there have been significant meetings in recent months between Burma’s brutal military regime and a noted opposition leader who has been under house arrest since September.

At the same time, in recent months Burma’s ruling junta, the State Peace and Development Council, has slid deeper into international disfavor (see NCR, Jan. 12).

A two-year campaign led by the International Labor Organization to impose new economic sanctions on Burma came to fruition in November last year when the ILO board declared the ruling council was violating international law because it uses forced labor.

Also in November, the ASEAN-European Summit (a top government-to-government undertaking similar to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum) met in Laos. The group had not met in three years because of their differences over human rights in Burma, which joined ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) in 1997. The group finally decided to meet, but the Burmese delegation received quite a tongue-lashing from the European Union ministers.

Meanwhile, the opposition National League for Democracy in Burma, led by Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, has been under increasing intimidation. In many parts of the country the National League for Democracy is no longer functioning as a party.

In several places, the military junta has forced the local landlord to evict the party from their premises, closing down local party headquarters. The military authorities have also pressured thousands of party members to resign.

Aung San Suu Kyi herself has been under virtual house arrest since September.

But underneath all that, progress has inched forward.

Burma’s ruling military junta has held high-level talks with Suu Kyi, the U.N. special envoy to Burma, Razali Ismail, told the press in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Jan. 9.

Razali, who had just returned from a five-day visit to Rangoon, would not say who from the junta had met Suu Kyi, but he said they were sufficiently high in the junta structure to set the stage for what he called “a historic dialogue.”

International media are quoting diplomatic sources in Bangkok and Rangoon as saying the junta’s first secretary and powerful chief of military intelligence, Lt. Gen. Khin Nyunt, met Suu Kyi at least once in December, and a second meeting could have taken place the first week of January.

Razali told the BBC that continuing contact between the military government and Suu Kyi’s party was planned, and the process of national reconciliation had begun.

“I think this [meeting] is extremely significant,” Razali told the BBC. “It’s what the U.N. and international community were hoping would happen, and we’re very glad this has taken place.”

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan appointed Razali, a senior Malaysian diplomat, as a special envoy to Burma. Razali has visited Burma three times since his appointment and has reportedly been “talking tough” with the State Peace and Development Council leadership.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won a landslide election victory in 1990, but the military refused to hand over power. Until now the junta has also ignored Suu Kyi and the League’s frequent appeals for the military to enter a meaningful dialogue on the country’s political future.

Diplomats in Bangkok said the current talks were aimed at building the framework for a landmark dialogue between the two sides.

National Catholic Reporter, January 19, 2001