By C. S. Kuppuswamy
Is Suu Kyi becoming bold to test the patience of the government? Why did Aung Kyi, the minister for labour and social welfare acting as liaison officer for the government, have two meetings with Suu Kyi within two weeks? Is there a thaw in the offing? Will the National League for Democracy (NLD) register itself as a political party? These and many more questions have cropped up as the events unfolded in Myanmar since the beginning of July 2011. Though every body keeps guessing on the outcome, there is some “cautions optimism”.
Aung San Suu Kyi
It is more than nine months since Suu Kyi was released (November 2010). She is yet to make any headway in her mission though during this period she has met with several international groups and delegations which have not really helped her cause. Her major task continues to be to enthuse and encourage the disparate opposition groups including the ethnic groups to form a united front despite their differences in strategy and political demands.
Her party, the NLD, is not the same as it was in 1990. In these two decades, the party has lost its significance and direction because of its ageing leadership, her long periods of house arrest, internal dissensions due to boycotting the elections and finally the party’s disbandment in May 2010. She has to keep contacting the masses aggressively as she has now started by going out of Yangon and also infuse some young blood into the party hierarchy.
Suu Kyi wrote an open letter to President Thein Sein on 28 July 2011 calling for a cease fire and political solution to ongoing ethnic conflicts in Kachin, Karen and Shan states. Copies were endorsed to leaders of ethnic armed groups of the affected states. She conveyed her willingness to get involved in the talks for resolving this issue.
Despite warnings from the Government, Suu Kyi made a one day trip (first political trip since her release) to Pegu (50 miles North of Yangon) on 14 August 2011. She had a rousing reception and was met by her supporters all along the route. She visited a Pagoda and opened a library. She was guarded in her speeches and said that she will continue with her efforts but does not want to give any false hopes.
Suu kyi has failed to revive the party (NLD) and make it a legal entity by appealing to the judiciary at all levels in the country. She is even considering the option of taking it up with the UN. She is, of late, under pressure to register the party if she has to embark on more serious political activity. After boycotting the elections for the reason that it was being held under the undemocratic 2008 constitution, it will be rather humiliating, to register the party now under the same constitution. Will she go for this? It is still not certain.
Aung Zaw, editor of The Irrawaddy, writes “for those looking for concrete answers to questions about how she intends to lead the country out of its current impasse, her stance on a number of key issues has begun to lose some of the clarity that it once had—however there is no doubt that Suu Kyi remains the people’s leader”.
The government is permitting Suu Kyi to carry on with her political activities through they are being monitored.
The government initially warned that her one day trip on 14 August 2011 to Pegu, should not be undertaken for safety and security reasons. Later not only did they allow her to make the trip but she was also provided security for the trip.
There is pressure from the government for the NLD to register as a political party if Suu Kyi wants to engage in political activities. Both the government and Suu kyi are aware that once the party is registered it will tantamount to acceptance of the 2008 Constitution.
The government has approached the IMF for standardising its currency with one rate. Currently it has a dual rate and there is the practice of issue of foreign exchange certificates. This reform will definitely improve the economy with more FDI.
Aung Kyi, Minister for Labor and Social Welfare had two closed door meetings with Aung San Suu Kyi on 25 July and 12 August 2011. Though Suu Kyi did not reveal details of the discussions after the first meeting, the minister gave a joint statement at the end of the second meeting to avoid conflicting views. The statement indicated:
- Will cooperate with the government for stability and development in the country to fulfill the necessary aspirations of the people.
- Will cooperate constructively for the flourishing of democracy in the country and better development in economic and social works.
- Will avoid conflicting views and focus on mutual cooperation.
- Will continue the meetings.
Tomas Ojea Quintana, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar is being allowed to visit Myanmar in the end of August 2011 when he is expected to meet some high ranking government officials and Aung San Suu Kyi. During his last visit in February 2010 he was not allowed to meet Suu Kyi (then under house arrest) and his requests to visit Myanmar since then had been declined.
Media reports indicate that Suu Kyi may be invited to participate in the National level workshop on Rural Development and Poverty Alleviation scheduled to be held at the capital in end August 2011.
On August 17, 2011 President Then Sein, while speaking to local businessmen, announced that his government will allow exiles to return home when their offences (except for criminal cases) will be considered leniently. There has been some mixed reaction from the exiles, some welcoming the announcement and some sceptic on the intentions of the Government without a decree or a general amnesty.
From a televised statement, attributed to Cabinet Secretary, Tin Myo Ki, it has come to light that the government has called for peace talks with armed ethnic rebels and that the rebel groups should contact the regional governments for this purpose. The government would also be forming a body to deal with groups seeking peace talks (BBC, 19 August 2011).
The Irrawaddy online news magazine (19 August 2011) indicates that Aung San Suu Kyi will be meeting Myanmar President Thein Sein in Naypyidaw on 19 August after attending a development workshop. The invitation to her for the workshop is by name as “Daw Aung San Suu Kyi” and not as General Secretary of the NLD. This will be her first trip to Naypyidaw.
The United States has welcomed the government’s gesture towards Suu Kyi in allowing her to move out of Yangon freely and meet her supporters. The US Senate has also confirmed the appointment of Derek Mitchell as US special envoy to Myanmar.
The government which was averse to the word “national reconciliation” and was all for national consolidation, seems to have reversed its stand as seen from the press conference of Kyaw Hsan, the Information Minister and the joint statement issued by Aung Kyi, Minister for Labour.
Though the government will not relent on the application of 2008 Constitution for all purposes, there is a softening of the approach in talks with the ethnic groups and the pro-democratic opposition (particularly towards Suu Kyi). At the same time pressure is being applied on NLD to register as a political party.
The government is definitely more transparent than what it was as seen from the official media coverage and the announcements on various initiatives made by the President and his ministers.
Seeking the help of the IMF in modernising its currency, permitting the UN Special Rapporteur to visit Myanmar, inviting the exiles to return to the country and avoiding negative publicity of the western nations and agencies in the official media are some of the striking changes which have been welcomed by one and all.
Most analysts have commented that the change in approach aimed at image building is all because of Myanmar’s bid for chairmanship of ASEAN in 2014. ASEAN is currently in the process of evaluating the suitability of Myanmar for this purpose.
There is also a view that by reaching out to Suu Kyi, the western nations can be placated and sanctions may be lifted. With this aim the government may even go out to release some political prisoners and enter into some ad hoc arrangements with ethnic groups.
There are some reports to indicate that there is divergence of views between the president and his deputy (both erstwhile generals) on this reformist approach. Hence the process can be scuttled at any time.
Aung San Suu kyi must be well aware that she is being used by the government for public relations purposes and that this is one way of containing her from provoking any mass movement. Her good offices are also being used to keep the ethnic armed groups in check at least for the time being.
Past experience shows that the winds of change have always eluded Myanmar. The present move is a welcome change and perhaps at least this time, the change could be for the better.