Monday, August 25, 1997

National League for Democracy Awaits Dialogue

Andreas Harsono
The Nation, August 25, 1997

The Burmese apposition is growing increasingly confident the military government will seek talks soon. The Nation’s Andreas Harsono and Yindee Lertcharoenchok report.

The residence of U Tin Oo is located in the elite Golden Valley area in the Rangoon and the Burmese dissident was still listening to an English language foreign radio service. He had the volume set high to haunt the military intelligence officer near his house.

The residence of U Tin Oo is located in the elite Golden Valley area in Rangoon and the Burmese dissident was still listening to an English language foreign radio service. He had the volume set high as if to taunt the military intelligence officers who frequently inspect his house.  

"In Burma, listening to foreign radio stations is a rare phenomenon. People are afraid. They don't talk about politics in public. They could end up in jail even by mentioning the names of some opposition figures. 

"Everybody wishes to talk. But the day will come. It is not far away," smiled the square-faced and bespectacled Tin Oo, a retired army general and currently the vice-chairman of the opposition National League for Democracy whose secretary-general is 1991 Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. 

Clad in light blue longyi, white collarless shirt and grey Burmese jacket, Tin Oo hinted that the time is now appropriate for the ruling State Law and Order Restoration Council (Slorc) to have talks with the NLD. 

"They [Slorc] once said they are not going to talk with Khun Sa. The next day they drank tea together," said Tin Oo, referring to the infamous drug lord who in January last year surrendered himself to the Slorc and who has since claimed to have washed his hand off illicit heroin trade in the Golden Triangle area and now live quietly in a 6 mansion in Rangoon. 

Tin Oo is not alone in thinking so. Scores of Asean diplomats in Rangoon and prominent Burmese figures believed that both the Slorc and NLD are now interested in opening a dialogue in a bid to resolve Burmese political stalemate since Slorc's refusal to hand over power to NLD after winning the 1990 general election. 

Many believed if Burma could find a solution, it would not only benefit the Burmese people who had suffered from brutal military rule since 1962, but also contribute to stability in Southeast Asia. 

"Thailand, at least, will have no refugees on its western border," said an Asian diplomat. Poerwanto Lenggono, the Indonesian ambassador to Burma, said the Slorc had taken steps to open a dialogue with NLD after the country's membership in Asean was confirmed in the Asean ministerial meeting in Kuala Lumpur last month. 

He said since then both sides of the Burmese divide are restraining themselves and appear to "soften" their political stance. Poerwanto said the situation is now relatively "peaceful" although the University Avenue remains closed where people are barred from going to Suu Kyi's residence on that famous street where the NLD had held public gatherings every weekend since her release in July 1995 until they were stopped late last year by the Slorc. 

To many exiled dissidents and foreign diplomats, the unexpected meeting on July 17 between Slorc Secretary Lieutenant General Khin Nyunt and NLD Chairman U Aung Shwe was actually the beginning of a bilateral Slorc-NLD dialogue.

Although some critics believed the meeting was organised purely for "international consumption" in a move to avert any possible last-minute hurdle to Burma's admission into Asean, several Burmese activists - including an exiled NLD MP in Bangkok - were ready to give the Slorc the benefit of the doubt. 

Despite an obvious lack of any essential substance, the latter hoped that the "cordial discussions" as the Slorc put it would lead to more talks between the two Burmese political antagonists. 

Khin Nyunt, also chief of the notorious Directorate for Military Intelligence Services, reportedly told Aung Shwe that he would like to have further dialogue, but the NLD leader also clearly notified that further talks should include Suu Kyi. 

"We're not going to have dialogue without her," Aung Shwe reportedly said. 

Poerwanto said over the last three months, NLD has not made any new overtures especially after the Slorc had accused it of involvement in the fatal parcel bomb attack in April that killed the eldest daughter of Slorc Secretary Number Two Lieutenant General Tin 00. 

He doubted whether Suu Kyi, who is a strong supporter of non-violence movement, could have order such a move, adding that the 52-year-old NLD leader had perhaps expected Asean to ask the Slorc to be "a good boy" after becoming an Asean member. 

Some critics said that Slorc decision to have the talks was because the generals are facing difficulties in running the country under strong international pressure. The military junta cannot keep the prices of basic needs under control, prompting criticism of the military regime. 

Burmese journalist Sein Win, however, has another explanation. He believed that Suu Kyi is "lying low" after Khin Nyunt's serious allegations in June that she and the NLD had received over US$80,000 from American organizations. 

Under the Burmese law, it is illegal for any political party to receive financial support from foreign countries. 

When asked whether Burma could get out of the current political stalemate, Sein Win, who worked for the then privately-run New Light of Burma before it was nationalized in 1965, said it might happen after the constitution is passed. But as to when this will happen, nobody knows. 

The National Convention had stopped convening after NLD pulled out of the constitution-making body in November 1995. 

Sein Win said after the passing of the constitution, SLORC promised to hold a general election but want to exclude Suu Kyi because she is married to a foreigner. Burma's laws ban politicians married to foreigners from involvement in parliamentary or governmental affairs. 

Suu Kyi, who is married to British scholar Dr Michael Aris, however, has repeatedly said she would not seek political power. Some Burmese businessmen also doubted whether people like Tin Oo and Suu Kyi could govern Burma "because they have no military support." 

It is next to impossible that Suu Kyi, however popular she is, be in power as long as the army does not support her. "Power comes from the barrel of the gun," said a Chinese noodle manufacturer. 

When asked whether the Slorc and NLD needs an international mediator like South African Nelson Mandela who is now working on East Timor, Tin Oo said the situation in Burma and East Timor is different. 

According to him, Burma does not need a mediator although he admitted that a number of Nobel laureates including Mandela and South African Bishop Desmond Tutu had already offered help. 

"No, we can solve the problem ourselves," said the former chief of staff of the Burmese Army. 

He also said that scores of old veteran officers had organized a meeting to help mediate the Slorc-NLD conflict, adding that these old soldiers – who helped General Aung San, Suu Kyi's father, to fight against the British colonial ruler and liberate Burma - want to see democracy and good governance restored in Burma before they die. 

Tin Oo explained that bilateral talks should be conducted on equal grounds "in a dignified way on the pattern of democratic principle." He also urge Asean representatives to Rangoon to talk with NLD.

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