Myanmar’s junta, the State Peace and Development Council, is engaged in secret reconciliation talks with democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi. For now, exiled dissidents and ethnic opponents of the junta watch cautiously from the sidelines. Any solution to Myanmar’s problems, though, will have to consider their concerns.

Mahn Nyein looks you in the eye when he talks. A serious man, he’s well known for a remarkable exploit in 1970. Then an imprisoned political dissident on Myanmar’s inhospitable Coco’s Island group, he and fellow inmates built a raft and sailed hundreds of kilometers to the mainland in an escape attempt. They were recaptured, but only he survived.

Today he’s a senior official in the Karen National Union, an ethnic organization that has fought successive Myanmar governments for autonomy since 1949. When asked about the ongoing reconciliation talks he was forthright.

“We have a wait-and-see attitude,” he said. “The SPDC should show more sincerity and release all political prisoners. The NLD (National League for Democracy) should have freedom to organize and engage in political activities.”

As for the international community, Mahn Nyein said, “Pressure helped bring about the talks. The SPDC had no way to carry on and needed an outlet to release it, so they lack sincerity. Now is not the time to release that pressure.”

These themes were also expressed elsewhere. The National Coalition of the Union of Burma is an umbrella opposition group formed in 1992 that includes ethnic-minority alliances as well as exiled Myanmar student and parliamentary groups. Aung Moe Zaw, NCUB secretary general, cautioned against early expectations. “Now the talks have started, but there is a long way to go,” he said. “We need to solve two main problems — the lack of democracy and the needs of the ethnic minorities.”

The NCUB leader said that while the talks were at a sensitive stage, more flexibility by the junta was not unreasonable. “There should be freedom of political movement for Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD. Also elected ethnic MPs, like those from the Shan NLD, should be free to meet and discuss issues among themselves.”

The international community, he said, “for the time being . . . should encourage both sides. (But) current pressures like the U.S. sanctions, the Swiss freezing of junta members’ bank accounts and the ILO action should be maintained.”

Two of the Shan political opponents of the regime differ widely in their views of the talks.

For Aung Mart of the Restoration Council of Shan State, the matter was simple. “We have no position on the talks,” he said. “They are a separate issue, as our goal is independence.”

The Shan Democratic Union believes that eventually Myanmar’s political debacle will have to be settled in tripartite fashion, meaning at least one more seat at the reconciliation table for other ethnic groups. If that happens, they want to be ready to participate, not simply to listen.

To that end, they have embarked upon a constitution-writing program led by Sao Seng Suk, a veteran nationalist and group spokesman. A first draft is being prepared this year, and grassroots Shan participation is encouraged.

According to one SDU member, the purpose is, “to prepare the Shan people for when a real one is written. It canused either for an independent Shan State or as talking points for making a new . . . one.”

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