The announcement that Myanmar’s military government and prodemocracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi had entered into direct talks is a welcome surprise from a country that has only managed to disappoint in recent years. Given the junta’s stubborn refusal to negotiate with Ms. Suu Kyi, it is hard to be optimistic about the outcome of any talks. Nonetheless, concerned governments should keep the pressure on Yangon and encourage a dialogue.
Reportedly, direct contacts between Ms. Suu Kyi and Lt. Gen. Khin Nyunt, the third-ranking leader in the ruling junta, began last October but had been kept secret until this past week. The secrecy is a good sign: It indicates that Myanmar’s leaders are not just going through the motions to ease international pressure. The contacts also cover a longer time period than the last, abortive discussions with Ms. Suu Kyi in 1994. This is also encouraging.
The United Nations is playing a key role in the talks. The U.N. envoy to Myanmar, Mr. Razali Ismail, a Malaysian diplomat appointed to this post last April, has been able to bring the two sides together. Mr. Razali voiced optimism about the initial meetings, although the substance of the talks remains confidential.
There is every indication that the discussions between Ms. Suu Kyi and the junta will continue. That alone will satisfy some critics, but national reconciliation and the restoration of democracy remain the ultimate objective. That will take time.
There is much to overcome and much bitterness to address. The latest chapters in the sad history of Myanmar, once called Burma, began in 1988 with prodemocracy demonstrations, ruthlessly and bloodily suppressed by the military. They led to a brief breath of freedom, which culminated in parliamentary elections on May 27, 1990. That vote, to the military’s surprise, was won in a landslide by the National League for Democracy, the opposition group headed by Ms. Suu Kyi. But the elected representatives of the people never took their seats in Parliament. Instead, the government refused to honor the vote and cracked down on the opposition. Many NLD members fled to Thailand and established a government in exile. Others were arrested; some, like Ms. Suu Kyi, were kept under house arrest. She endured six years at home, and since 1995 her movements and activities have been severely proscribed. After trying to leave the capital of Yangon last September, she again was restricted to her home.
But her devotion to the fight to bring democracy to her homeland and her defiance of the military dictatorship have won her acclaim and the highest respect worldwide. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. The NLD has been weakened by deaths and defections, but Ms. Suu Kyi and her remaining allies have continued the struggle against the junta.
There are several reasons for the present breakthrough. Mr. Razali deserves some credit. He has been a tireless envoy, and has shuttled between the two sides trying to get some form of dialogue started.
External pressure has also been important. Last year, the International Labor Organization voted to impose sanctions on the government. The United States and the European Union have been relentless critics of the junta; for three years, the EU refused to hold regular high-level talks with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations because of Myanmar’s membership in the group. Last December, foreign ministers for the two groups met in Laos. Now we know why.
It is also likely that ASEAN brought pressure to bear on the government in Yangon. ASEAN was much criticized for accepting Myanmar as a member three years ago, but Southeast Asian leaders have maintained that constructive engagement was always a better bet than sanctions. And despite the professed policy of noninterference in the domestic affairs of member states, it is very likely that ASEAN diplomats have made it clear that dialogue is the only option.
Even the junta may be ready to accept that. Diplomatic isolation, corruption and economic mismanagement have reduced Myanmar’s economy to near ruins. Foreign investors have been deterred by the government’s international image. Inflation is running at 50 percent, exports are one-half imports, and annual per capita income is $1,200 and shrinking.
The junta’s capacity for stubbornness should not be underestimated, however. The government has responded to external pressure in the past, but only to deflect it. For example, talks also began in 1994, but they quickly broke off without progress. Realism will be the key to success. Ms. Suu Kyi and her supporters, both at home and abroad, must be prepared for a long and difficult process. There is reason to hope, but only just.
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