Junta’s Ethnic Overtures Sideline Opposition
By Min Zin Thursday, December 4, 2003

December 04, 2003—The National Convention is once again the talk of the town in Burmese political circles. When Burma’s new Prime Minister Gen Khin Nyunt announced the junta’s seven-point homegrown recipe for democracy, the first step was the resumption of National Convention that adjourned in early 1996. The move signaled that the junta has recovered from the May 30 nightmare in Depayin and designing a counterattack against the pro-democracy movement. It rings of Sun Tzu, The Art of War. The regime has now succeeded in persuading almost all the ethnic groups—ceasefire and non-ceasefire—to climb on the road map bandwagon. With the legitimacy they will add to the National Convention, the junta can undermine Aung San Suu Kyi’s election-winning National League for Democracy (NLD) party, since the opposition also depends on an alliance with ethnic groups. Moreover, the regime has made an effort to sell its vision to regional powers this time around. If it is successful, the maneuvers may sideline Suu Kyi’s international allies, such as the US and UN. "The military is determined to make something out of their roadmap," says U Htain Lin, a veteran political analyst in Rangoon. "They appear to be planning to form a quasi-civilian government by 2006." Though many question the inclusiveness of the National Convention, the military leaders define the forum as representative, since they have some ethnic groups on board. Junta chairman Sr-Gen Than Shwe told Chinese leaders during a visit to China in January that the government would cooperate with ethnic groups, but never with Suu Kyi. "They are desperately persuading non-ceasefire ethnic groups to enter into ceasefire deals and sit in the National Convention, at least as observers," says Aung Moe Zaw, the general secretary of National Council of the Union of Burma, an exiled opposition alliance. Key ethnic groups such as the Kachin Independence Organization have already announced they will join the Convention, but some groups are reluctant. "The military has been pressing us to submit a delegation list for the Convention," says Nai Banya Mon, a spokesperson for the New Mon State Party (NMSP), which signed a ceasefire in 1995. "We haven’t decided to do so yet." "To the best of my knowledge, the participation of the majority of the ethnic groups in the Convention is not yet certain. Presenting the list of delegates can’t be seen as the group’s final decision about participation," he added "The NMSP only advocate an open and inclusive Convention." Aung Moe Zaw agreed. "No matter if ethnic groups join the Convention after all, the regime wants to have token lists from them so that they can claim that things are progressing, especially to the international people," he says. A delegation from the Karen National Union (KNU), the largest non-ceasefire armed ethnic group, is now in Rangoon to discuss the road map. Sources confirm that Khin Nyunt will receive the delegation. The military is also currently approaching non-ceasefire Karenni groups about ceasing hostilities, according to news reports. The National Convention is the only available game being played right now in Rangoon and ethnic groups realize that they have very limited choices. Any group which dares to say "no" will run the risk of being left out of the political process. Insurgent groups along the Thai-Burma border are also receiving pressure from the Thais on a daily basis. If the regime manages to persuade—or at least neutralize—the ethnic groups during this battle for legitimacy it will have a devastating effect on the NLD. The party will be left behind while the junta and its ethnic allies follow the government’s road map. Despite such a worse case scenario, senior NLD leaders remain confident in their designated role in solving Burma’s political deadlock. "Without the legitimacy the NLD adds, none of Burma’s problems can be resolved in sustaining way," says a senior party leader from Rangoon. "There have been some movements in [Suu Kyi’s] compound. Military liaisons are approaching her. Things are going to be cleared by early next year." But the junta’s maneuvering does not elicit much optimism. The generals seem set on continuing to silence the Lady until they reach agreements with the major ethnic groups. The regime may release some more political prisoners now and then, but most likely not Suu Kyi and other outspoken NLD leaders. If the junta is successful in its efforts to sell the road map abroad, it may be able to use the Thai-sponsored forum on Burma scheduled for Bangkok in mid-December as a shield to fend off Western pressure. China, India, Japan and Germany, will be there, and having them on board will allow the junta to deflect the US’s harsh criticism and perhaps even circumvent the current UN efforts at dialogue. "There are increasing concerns among the policy makers in the US over this forum.

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