Most days, the area surrounding University Avenue, home to one
of the world's most famous political prisoners, is quiet. Outside
the house of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader who
has been under house arrest on and off since the ruling junta cancelled
elections more than a decade ago, barricades prevent curious visitors
from getting too close. Troops wander around, smoking cigarettes
and chatting among themselves. Several blocks away, a few aging
Japanese sedans and battered three-wheeled taxis putter along.
Inside Suu Kyi's home, however, momentous happenings appear to
be underway. For the first time since the mid-'90s, leaders of the
Burmese junta have initiated a dialogue with Suu Kyi's party, the
National League for Democracy
(NLD), on the shape of Burma's political future. And as discussions
between the NLD and the junta have proceeded, some optimistic observers
are predicting that four decades of military rule are drawing to
a close. But in Burma, a land ruled by an opaque regime, events
are rarely as simple as they seem.
Burma's politics seem to be changing for the better, but maybe
that's because they
hardly could get worse. In 1962, the military seized power and plunged
Burma into decades of self-imposed isolation. As Burma's economy,
once one of the strongest in Southeast Asia, deteriorated, it triggered
popular unrest. In 1988, anti-government demonstrations shattered
the state's tranquility and brought Suu Kyi, daughter of slain independence
hero Aung San, to the forefront of the pro-democracy opposition. But
the military crushed the 1988 demonstrations, killing thousands of
students; in 1989, it placed Suu Kyi under house arrest.
Aung San Suu Kyi remains
under house arrest in Rangoon.
Yet in 1990, the military regime allowed free elections, perhaps
because the junta mistakenly believed it would win the poll. Instead,
the NLD swept the election. Shortly afterward, the junta nullified
the vote, and Suu Kyi remained under house arrest. (After throwing
out the 1990 elections, the generals began calling the country Myanmar.)
She was freed in 1995, but placed under house arrest once again
last fall after attempting to travel outside Rangoon to visit members
of her party.
While Suu Kyi languished, the junta attempted to demolish the NLD.
The regime closed Rangoon's universities, which had been hotbeds
of protest in 1988, creating a lost generation of Burmese students
who never finished their education (hundreds of unemployed young
adults can be seen spending their days idling around downtown Rangoon).
Lower-level NLD workers were detained in government-run "guesthouses,"
and many NLD party offices were shuttered. Tin Oo, a leading member
of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), the official
name for the junta, told Burma's state press that Suu Kyi would
be "crushed without mercy."
In January, however, a junta spokesman unexpectedly announced that
the generals were talking with Suu Kyi in an effort to promote national
reconciliation and stability. Although the junta has refused to
provide details of the talks, sources in the military say that top
members of the junta have been regularly visiting Suu Kyi's home.
In an apparent effort to demonstrate its sincerity, the junta also
has made concessions to the NLD. The generals have allowed Suu Kyi
to meet with the U.N. human rights inspector, who had been barred
from Burma for five years. The SPDC has released more than 140 political
prisoners, including two famous comedians known here as the "Mustache
Brothers" who had been jailed for performing skits that poked fun
at the government. The military also allowed the NLD to reopen a
party office in Taikkyi, a suburb of Rangoon, and freed Suu Kyi's
cousin and aide, Aye Win, from prison. "The SPDC has taken some
steps that show they're trying to boost goodwill towards Suu Kyi,"
says David Steinberg, a Burma expert at Georgetown University.
Almost immediately, key players praised the apparent rapprochement.
In early 2001, the All Burma Students Democratic Front, a Thailand-based
organization of Burmese students who have fled the country, celebrated
the dialogue as "a historic breakthrough." Meanwhile, Surakiart
Sathirathai, foreign minister of Thailand, told reporters: "National
reconciliation [in Burma] is moving."
Exactly why the SPDC decided to open a dialogue with Suu Kyi is
unclear. A few analysts say sanctions levied against Burma by Western
governments--including the United States--finally embarrassed and
isolated the regime so much that it was forced to negotiate. Others
posit that Burma's recent economic collapse forced the generals
to the bargaining table. The Burmese economy definitely has seen
better times: Inflation is running at more than 20 percent, and
the country's currency, the kyat, is depreciating precipitously.
Essential goods in Rangoon have become at least four times more
expensive over the past three years.
But to many Burma experts, one thing is clear: The military is
not going to fade away into the smoggy Rangoon night. "The regime
doesn't want to lose control--it saw how the military in Indonesia
was made feebler when it allowed some power to be handed over to
civilians," says Michael Aung-Thwin, a Burma expert at the University
of Hawaii. "The junta remains conservative, and I don't think for
a moment that the NLD will wind up in charge of the country."
Indeed, while talking with Suu Kyi and using the dialogue to woo
the regional and
international media, the junta has continued to consolidate its hold
on Burma. Although the case has received limited attention in the
press, Suu Kyi's brother, Aung San Oo--a businessman and U.S. citizen--has
sued his sister in an attempt to reclaim half of her residence, which
he says should be a jointly owned family property. Several Bangkok-based
analysts believe the junta pushed Aung San Oo, who is not a pro-democracy
activist, to file the suit. Since foreigners cannot hold property
in Burma, if Aung San Oo wins, his half of the house would be turned
over to the government, which then potentially could evict his sister.
Gen. Than Shwe says
democracy will bring "chaos."
What's more, Suu Kyi remains under house arrest, and the country's
jails are still near bursting. According to Amnesty International,
the Rangoon junta holds more than 1,800 political prisoners. Over
the past year, the military arrested more than 200 members of opposition
parties. "While they're talking with Suu Kyi, the military is taking
more political prisoners," says Jeremy Woodrum, director of the
Washington office of the Free
Burma Coalition, a pro-democracy group.
On this year's Armed Forces Day, a time when top brass signal the
coming year's policies, junta head Than Shwe warned that democracy
would bring "chaos and instability" to Burma. Than Shwe's tough
comments lend credence to reports that, even as talks continue,
a group of hard-liners centered around army chief Maung Aye has
gained the upper hand within the SPDC. Perhaps because of the junta's
intransigence, Suu Kyi did not appear at a Martyr's Day parade honoring
her father--a move analysts took as a sign the opposition leader
was fed up with the regime's dialogue.
Outside Rangoon, the military continues to battle ethnic-minority
militias and to align itself with some of the world's most unsavory
drug traffickers. The SPDC "continues to vigorously wage war against
the ethnic nationalities and ruthlessly oppresses the people," read
a statement issued by the Karen
National Union (KNU), one of the leading militias. "These acts
are diametrically opposed to the goal of resolving basic political
To fight the KNU and other ethnic minority groups pushing for democracy,
the junta allies itself with the United Wa State Army (UWSA), a
guerrilla group based along the Thailand border that funds itself
by trafficking opium, amphetamines and other drugs. Although SPDC
leaders insist they are doing their best to combat narcotics production,
drug enforcement officials based in Southeast Asia contend that
the Rangoon regime turns a blind eye to the UWSA's business, and
even skims off a percentage of their drug money. "The drug trade
has become a significant factor in the overall economy, and the
regime has obtained vital revenue from the reinvestment of narcotics
profits," says a report on Burma by the International Crisis Group.
In recognition of the junta's support, the UWSA battles ethnic minority
opponents of the junta.
Meanwhile, the SPDC has utilized the talks with Suu Kyi to boost
ties with Asian neighbors, who are more important to the junta's
long-term survival. Rangoon today has few economic ties with Western
nations--Japan, China, India, Thailand, Singapore and Pakistan are
Burma's most important allies--and the country's economy revolves
around the military. "The junta has tight control of the important
sectors of the economy, and it is actually consolidating that control,"
Aung-Thwin says. "The Asian nations are much more willing to do
business with Burma. ... The sanctions don't really affect Burma's
business with China or Thailand."
These Asian allies now are drawing closer to Rangoon, as the stigma
of dealing with the SPDC has begun to dissipate. Over the past two
months, Japan's most powerful business group, the Keidanren, has
held talks with the junta, and the Japanese government has approved
a $28.6 million aid package to Rangoon. "It is extremely important
to the Japanese government that they have influence in Burma," Steinberg
says. "They will do most anything to be in Burma." Meanwhile, Malaysia
is helping to develop Burma's gas fields, and Thailand's new prime
minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, has demonstrated no interest in discussing
Burma's human rights problems.
Despite the significant obstacles to any deal between the junta
and Suu Kyi, several influential commentators continue to promise
a major breakthrough. Thai Defense Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh,
who has close ties with several SPDC members, told local reporters
that the NLD and the junta could soon form a national government.
"I've got a sixth sense that something positive is going to happen
soon," Chavalit said. "The trend is quite encouraging." Meanwhile,
Roger Mitton, a writer for Asiaweek and probably the most influential
journalist on Burma issues, has suggested that the junta and NLD
might agree to a deal in which the generals would receive an amnesty
and Suu Kyi would become head of state.
But this optimism seems misplaced. Burma has little culture of
political pluralism: Since World War II, the country has experienced
six decades of turbulence, in-fighting and military rule. Ethnic
divisions still plague the country. The junta continues to hold
nearly all the cards, and it may be playing its aces to lure Asian
companies and overcome Western sanctions.
"The SPDC has held talks with Suu Kyi before [in 1994], when they
ended the talks and then blamed the failure on Suu Kyi," Woodrum
says. "They could easily end the dialogue again and then blame Suu
Kyi for being difficult." Indeed, Steinberg adds, even if the dialogue
between the SPDC and Suu Kyi continues, the most likely scenario
is some arrangement where the junta retains almost total power over
the command-style economy and considerable control over the political
For its part, Washington can't do much to help the opposition.
Although Burma's economy is in bad shape, and proposed U.S. legislation
to ban all imports from Burma would hurt Rangoon's garment industry,
as the SPDC develops closer trade and aid links with its Asian neighbors
it has less need for American investment. "Certainly, the regime
would like American companies to come to Rangoon, but it doesn't
need them if Japan and Thailand are pragmatic and invest in Burma,"
says Aung-Thwin. "So the SPDC can continue to go its own way."
Joshua Schenker is the pen name of a journalist who has
written extensively on Southeast Asian politics.
Now read David Moberg's article, "Burma