Myanmar: Has Reconciliation Begun?

2002

Professor David I. Steinberg

The release of Aung San Suu Kyi on 6 May brought Burma/Myanmar back into the limelight. Not so much international attention has been paid to that country since the elections of May 1990, which her opposition party won and the results of which the military government have studiously ignored. By inviting the international press in for the release, the military have, perhaps unconsciously, raised the stakes by implying change and placed their credibility on the line. More is now expected from them.

Expectations abroad have been very high, in spite of the fact that Aung San Suu Kyi’s release was never announced in the press internally, and in the external official statement her name was not mentioned. That optimistic mood is not widely shared in Rangoon (Yangon). Yet if the international public is disappointed in the lack of substantive progress toward reconciliation and some form of transition within some reasonable period, then foreign opinion of the military government will deteriorate even further than before her release. There may be additional condemnation of the regime, including perhaps the imposition of textile import sanctions by the United States. These exports to the US are significant foreign exchange earners for the state and employ tens of thousands of workers.

General Khin Nyunt and Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir, on the latter’s visit to Yangon with his business colleagues in August, both indicated that progress toward democratic governance will be slow. No timetable for political change has been given. It is likely, however, that the military under any proposed new arrangement will minimally demand the unity of the state, the autonomy of the military within that state, their retention of their military-controlled economic assets, and veto power and the ability to declare a national crisis in case of emergency. At the same time, the public statements by both Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) and the military State Peace and Development Council have continued to be studiously moderate.

Following her freedom, party rebuilding activities, internal travel and the slow, studied release of a significant number of other prisoners in small batches has begun. This is the sine qua non of her credibility, on which she must, and has, insisted. But the reconciliation dialogue does not seem to have begun, although some five months have passed. There has been no public indication that any of the critical issues concerning the distribution of power are yet on the table, nor have minorities been included in the proposed dialogue. The first step toward reconciliation may be reformation of (and inclusion of the NLD in) the National Convention for the drafting of a new constitution. The NLD could then terminate its own constitutional committee.

The European Union Delegation visited Myanmar in September and met with both the government and opposition. At the close of the visit, Aung San Suu Kyi was supposed to have told the delegation that she was ‘neutral’ about the EU’s imposition of sanctions on Myanmar. That seemed to have been a change in her position, indicating perhaps a more conciliatory posture than heretofore.

WATCHPOINT: To what extent will progress toward reconciliation, or the lack of it, affect external sanctions on Myanmar and thus Myanmar's overall economic position?

 

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