The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]
Correct Move? You Bet
By AUNG ZAW Saturday, May 20, 2006

In an unexpected move, the regime allowed a visiting top UN official to meet detained Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi at a government guest house. The meeting lasted for one hour, according to news agencies.

This surprising development will inspire cautious optimism in some, while others will take a wait and see attitude, as the regime has in the past consistently played the Suu Kyi card whenever it got backed into a corner—either to relieve outside pressure or to stage a diplomatic coup to win hearts and minds at home and abroad.

Many Burmese and international communities will likely not rush to praise the government, preferring instead to watch their next move. Senior members of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy told The Irrawaddy after learning of the meeting that they will remain cautious about developments.

The breakthrough meeting between UN undersecretary-general for political affairs and Suu Kyi comes at a time when the regime has put intense pressure on the NLD and spearheaded an unprecedented military campaign against ethnic Karen civilians. Many fear that the government’s next step is outlawing the party that won a landslide victory in the 1990 elections.

Moreover, the international community is maintaining an aggressive stance on Burma. The US has renewed sanctions, and a senate resolution passed late Friday night calls on the US to “lead an effort at the United Nations Security Council to pass immediately a binding, non-punitive resolution calling for the immediate and unconditional release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi,” the resolution reads.

“Maybe this is the correct direction,” said one diplomat involved in previous high-level negotiations between the regime and the NLD about the meeting. More significant still would be a meeting between Snr-Gen Than Shwe and Suu Kyi, who has been calling for dialogue with her captors. They have met in the past and nearly agreed to a breakthrough political compromise in 2004 before the junta chief backed out.

Ibrahim Gambari, the UN’s most senior official to visit Rangoon in recent years, met yesterday with senior members of the NLD. Gambari met Than Shwe and other top brass in the regime’s newly built capital of Naypyidaw.

It is safe to say that Gambari made a smart move by asking to see Than Shwe. The junta chief is considered to be a skilled political strategist and holds absolute power in Burma. He is believed to have green-lighted the deadly mob attack on Suu Kyi and her convoy in Depayin in 2003, and he alone can decide to free her or extend her detention after the latest term expires on May 27.

Perhaps the crafty dictator wanted to steal the show during Gambari’s visit by showing that he could behave like a true diplomat. Prior to Gambari’s arrival in Rangoon, no one dared to believe that any meeting with Suu Kyi would take place.

Perhaps Than Shwe’s unusual collaboration with a visiting UN diplomat just emphasizes that Burma is ruled by one man, and that nothing is predictable. A future meeting between the despot and the democracy icon would be a positive next step in moving toward a genuine national reconciliation.

The fate of Burma and its people depend on such a meeting. And if Than Shwe has one more diplomatic card left up his sleeve, the international community may respond positively.

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