Myanmar: The Quiet, Elusive Dialogue


David I. Steinberg

The announcement in January 2001 that a quiet dialogue was underway between the opposition National League for Democracy’s (NLD) Aung San Suu Kyi and the military junta was greeted with only a modest level of expectations at that time. It had been too long since a previous meeting had taken place, and nothing had resulted from that first endeavor years earlier. The new discussions were perhaps prompted by the visit of UN Secretary General’s special envoy Ambassador Razali Ismail and encouraged by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir, and some movement, however glacial, seemed evident. The substance of the talks, however, was tightly held.

Since that time, observers have been waiting in vain for progress. Yet at public gatherings outside Myanmar, foreign diplomats seem more optimistic than they have been for years, even if such optimism lacks firm foundations in publicly articulated compromises by either party. The simple act of occasional discussion, accompanied by the absence of the usual levels of regime vituperation against ‘the lady,’ was cause enough for hope.

Although skepticism prevails in Yangon and intensifies as no indications of progress are given, a new issue has arisen. Foreigners have been mentally prepared for the worst – political stasis continuing indefinitely until the regime capitulates or economic collapse and chaos occurs. But a contingency plan is needed: what if the talks result in some political compromise? Even if the military retain essential power, what if there is some sharing of even limited authority? Have the industrialized nations some ‘plan B’ that will establish benchmarks for the staged normalization of relations with a revamped administration? What might such stages be, and how best can progress be encouraged?

Japan has taken the first step. Under the guise of humanitarian assistance (the only kind Japan can legally provide until the Burmese repay their outstanding and massive loans), Japan is providing some US$28 million to revamp the Baluchaung hydroelectric project that they built in the later 1950s, as a reward for dialogue and negotiations. The original project was perhaps the most productive of all foreign assistance to Burma since independence. Some observers argue that electric power as a humanitarian good or basic human need may be stretching our imaginations. Whether Japan’s signal to Yangon is too early is a separate issue. Other questions remain: What other signs of progress are needed? Will the ban on U.S. visas for higher level Burmese officials be lifted? Will the U.S. designate an ambassador to Myanmar (and will the U.S. Senate agree to such an appointment)? When will the U.S. rescind its veto over assistance from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank? And finally, when and under what conditions will U.S. sanctions on new investments be lifted? Change should not be a journey without maps.

WATCHPOINT: Myanmar is not high on most foreign policy agendas except perhaps that of Thailand, yet planning in advance for progress is an important issue that should not be ignored


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