Myanmar: Hope Springs Eternal

2001

Frank Milne

While there have been false dawns before, it does seem that something is stirring in Myanmar. News of several secret discussions between Lt General Khin Nyunt and democratic opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi have been followed by some easing of the restrictions on her. In mid-March National League for Democracy (NLD) sources claimed that as a result of the talks official harassment of the party had eased and that the NLD would soon be permitted to re open some of their township offices in the Rangoon Division, previously closed by order of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) The same report said that Aung San Suu Kyi had been allowed to meet NLD vice-chairman U Tin Oo, though he was under house arrest, and other NLD senior officials have been permitted to visit her.

Malaysia, one of the closest of Myanmar's ASEAN partners, is the fourth largest foreign investor in Myanmar, with nearly $600 million in 25 projects, and is its third largest trading partner. It appears to have played a role in bringing about the renewed dialogue between the SPDC and the opposition. Prime Minister Mahathir’s private visit to Myanmar in January was followed by the visit of the UN Special Representative, Razali Ismail, (himself a former Malyasian diplomat).

This development comes at a time when the Myanmar economy is suffering accelerating decline. In black market trading the kyat has plumbed new depths, with the rate to the US dollar now around the 500 mark, and the FEC system of certificates equivalent to US dollars is facing collapse, since the Government no longer has the dollars to redeem them, and they are trading at around half the rate for the real thing. Myanmar's staple crop of rice is in short supply, with serious implications both for exports and the domestic situation. Economic pressures and the urgent need to revive foreign investment choked off by Western boycotts appear to have prompted the present move by the SPDC to put up at least the appearance of a more receptive approach to the restoration of democratic government. Leaders may also have felt confident that the NLD had been squeezed to the point where its popular support was declining, and could therefore expect to be able to finesse a transition to a new system which would leave their own power base and interests intact - the same (mis)calculation the regime made in its approach to the elections in 1989.

There have also been suggestions of a continuing power struggle between the hard liners and the pragmatists in the SPDC, with the latest development showing the latter represented by Khin Nyunt getting theupper hand. While this is plausible, a report that General Maung Aye, a leading hard liner, had been arrested was cast into considerable doubt when he subsequently received a visiting Chinese delegation. But the balance of power in the leadership may have shifted after the death of Lt General Tin Oo (Secretary-General 2) in a helicopter crash in February.

WATCHPOINT: Will Malaysia have the capacity to extract further concessions from the SPDC that amount to more than window-dressing?

 

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