Sunday, December 30, 2007

Facing the end-game

Bangkok Post, Perspective >> Sunday December 30, 2007

Facing the end-game

Unless the international community pushes for modification of the junta's political roadmap, a continuation of the conflict in Burma is a certainty, writes MIN ZIN

Recent weeks have been frustrating for Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma's democracy icon. Hope of starting political dialogue with the regime's supremo, Senior General Than Shwe, is now dim.

Although there was an agreement to hold weekly meetings every Monday between Suu Kyi and government liaison minister Aung Kyi, the regime has gone back on its word. No meeting has taken place between Suu Kyi and Aung Kyi since November 19. Moreover, the military's promise of allowing two liaison officials from her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), to see her regularly has yet to be realised.

"Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been trying very hard to keep the communication channel open," said a senior party official on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media. "She even plans to give a positive response to the preconditions of junta leader Senior General Than Shwe. But the regime has simply ignored her."

The frustration is now spreading within the international community. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned Burma during his recent trip to Asia that the international community expects to see some productive developments. "I know the international community is very much impatient, and our patience is running out," Ban said in Bangkok.

Meanwhile, the junta is sending mixed signals to the international community. In his official briefing on November 6, Information Minister Brig-Gen Kyaw Hsan, a staunch junta hardliner, told UN Special Envoy Ibrahim Gambari that the government's cooperation with the UN could be jeopardised if his performance were viewed to be "unfair and one-sided." Kyaw Hsan told Gambari straight that "your opportunity to play a constructive role in the matter may be in harm's way."

However, when Burmese Prime Minister Gen Thein Sein received Gambari on the following day, the general reiterated his government's full confidence in and support for the secretary-general's good offices.

"The prime minister invited me to return to Myanmar - in his words - 'again, again and again'," Gambari said at a briefing to the UN Security Council on November 13.

Moreover, as a gesture in response to the UN's persistent demand for an inclusive constitutional process, Thein Sein told Gambari that the government would allow him to meet with its Constitutional Drafting Commission to discuss ways of broadening the constitutional process.

On the other hand, at his press conference on December 3, Kyaw Hsan said that the government's 54-member commission for drafting the new constitution is sufficient for the task.

"No assistance or advice from other persons is required," he said, adding that "it is not reasonable or fair to amend those principles adopted by the delegates (of the National Convention)." Kyaw Hsan ruled out the possibility of a role for the opposition to play in the constitutional drafting process, which constitutes the highly important first three stages of the regime's "Seven Step Roadmap to Democracy".

In fact, the military is testing the response of the international community by sending out such mixed messages. If the international community, especially China and Asean (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations), takes a passive stand or backs down, the regime will push forward with a hardline stance. When Asean caved in to the demands of the regime by not allowing Gambari to give a Burma briefing at the Asean summit in November, hardliners in Rangoon celebrated their victory and started scratching the regular scheduled meetings with Suu Kyi.

"Burma's military leadership is just trying to do the absolute minimum transition and reconciliation possible," Priscilla Clapp, a US diplomat who served as chief of mission in Burma from 1999-2002, told this writer. "They will continue with their seven step plan, moving very slowly, and wait for the international community to lose interest and turn the other way."

'Not too late'

However, some analysts and activists believe that the junta's roadmap' could still be a viable option for Burma's transition if it were modified to become inclusive and time-bound. They think that the junta is resisting, not rejecting, the possibility of accommodation.

"It is not too late yet. If the international community could push the regime to open up the constitutional drafting process before a national referendum, the fourth stage of the seven-step plan, we still have time to find common ground for negotiation for Burma's political transition," said Dr Thaung Tun, UN representative of the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB), the Burmese government in exile. In fact, this is just what 92 elected members of Parliament from inside Burma called for in August 2007. They urged the regime to modify the roadmap, which is now aimed at legalising military supremacy in Burma's future.

The elected MPs said that if the regime made it inclusive, they would like to cooperate and find a political solution within the roadmap framework. Almost all major political and ethnic groups in Burma have agreed with the political proposal of the 92 elected MPs.

This is also in line with the UN's persistent demand as Gambari made clear when he said: "The Secretary-General did not reject the seven step roadmap and what he would like to suggest were inclusiveness and a time frame."

However, if the regime refused to modify the roadmap and continued its unilateral plan, the nature of Burma's conflict would become zero-sum. The 92 elected MPs have vowed to oppose the junta's sham constitution and to educate and organise the people of Burma to vote against it in the referendum.

Pro-democracy grassroot activists inside Burma as well as abroad also declare that the regime's planned referendum will be showdown time for Burma if the military fails to modify the roadmap. They say there will be almost no chance to reverse legalisation of military domination after a referendum, since the next three steps will be to "(5) hold free and fair elections; (6) convene elected bodies and (7) create government organs instituted by the legislative body."

"The principles of the constitution drafted by the military are laid out with the premise and concept that the 'military is the master and civilians are slaves',"said Tun Myint Aung, a leader of the 88 Generation Students Group, speaking from his hideout inside Burma. "We are now preparing to educate the people and launch a 'No Vote Campaign' against the referendum."

Some analysts even argue that another mass protest against the junta may break out before the referendum, as a combination of poverty and repression fuels the public's anger. No matter whether or not the opposition activists succeed in derailing the military's roadmap with mass protests, the nature and consequences of the conflict in Burma will be devastating, with more violent crackdowns and human suffering. The international community must be aware of this grim scenario and act resolutely to prevent it.

Min Zin is an independent Burmese journalist.

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