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.

Go Ask SLORC, How Long They Can Stand the Strain?

Andreas Harsono

RANGOON - An American writer on Burma once said that Kyi Maung, 79, the vice chairman of the National League for Democracy, is the man most responsible for leading the NLD to its overwhelming victory in the election in May 1990 while other NLD leaders were in detention.

An elderly figure who cannot hide his fondness for good humour and philosophy, Kyi Maung is widely considered to be one of the most prominent members of the 10-strong NLD Central Executive Committee which includes chairman U Aung Shwe, Vice Chairman U Tin Oo, Secretary-General Aung San Suu Kyi and treasurer U Lwin.

At the outbreak of World War II, young Kyi Maung joined the Burma Independence Army and later rose to the rank of colonel. But he was forced into retirement while serving as the commander of the Southwestern Command after opposing the military takeover of 1962.

"His pension is very small. It's only 1,000 kyats," said wife Daw Kyi Kyi who offered part of their house for rent to a South Korean family to support the family. One American dollar at the market rate is currently worth about 230 kyat.

Kyi Maung, a veteran politician who was repeatedly imprisoned by successive Burmese military rulers for a total of about 12 years since his forced retirement in 1963, gave an exclusive interview to The Nation at his house in a lane off Kaba Aye Pagoda Road in Rangoon on Aug 14. 

Below are excerpts from the interview.

Has the July meeting between NLD chairman U Aung Shwe and SLORC First Secretary Gen Khin Nyunt produced some results?

I think it was a step forward. They have never talked to us like that day. It was very cordial. We considered the talk very significant. It came from Khin Nyunt.

Will further talks include Aung San Suu Kyi?

We have told them that in future talks if they decide that they should be meaningful - they cannot keep her out of the scene. Their perception of her is completely mistaken - that she is obstinate, strong headed. It is not true. She is quite reasonable.

But the Slorc said Suu Kyi has repeatedly outmaneouvered the other members of the Central Executive Committee of NLD?

It is not true. You could invite them to sit in our meeting while we are having discussions. No, she is committed to going along with the opinion of the majority.

They said in some cases the committee had agreed on something but she suddenly changed the decisions?

No, no, not at all. I cannot recall such a situation. If she does, I for one, would walk out of the committee. When we walked out of the National Convention in November 1995, they presumed that she was the instigator. Not at all. She did not utter one word. Check it with Tin Oo. She did not even utter one word.

What happened?

She was new to the National Convention. She was released in July. Problems had already arisen inside the National Convention. So U Aung Shwe said the situation was unworkable there. It was conducted like a meeting to present seminar papers. They were comedies. We could not be there. We really wanted to discuss all of these [issues] but we were never allowed to present our agenda. They accused her of being behind us.

What about Burma's membership in Asean?

If the NLD had become the government in 1990, we would have really wooed Asean to receive us.

Our objection to it was that Asean should delay Burma's membership under such an unaccountable government. They are an illegitimate government. We wanted them to be accountable. This government does not recognise the popular vote. On principle, we are not against Burma joining Asean. The only thing we are asking is to have its membership delayed until after there is a dialogue within the country. That is the reason behind it.

As for trade sanctions, we do not want Burma getting poorer. We want the democratic world to put pressure on them, ask them for democratic change. That was the idea behind it. Now that Burma-has became a member of Asean, we have to recognise the facts and the reality. And we do. It is now up to Asean to persuade them.

But how do you perceive the undemocratic nature of some Asean countries like Indonesia for instance? What I'm trying to say is that the Slorc is not alone in Asean. It has Indonesia as a model.

But Indonesia even has relatively a free press which allows its people's voice to be heard. But here? Don't only take Slorc's nine years in existence. You have to add 26 years of military rule in this country. [Slorc] is the continuation of the Ne Win regime [since 1962].

But they say they are different from Ne Win. Under Ne Win the economy was really bad. Now the economy is open. You can see flights coming into Rangoon everyday. Cars and new buildings are on the streets?

No, no, it is worse now. The price of petrol has been raised seven times, 720 per cent last month. I had my own experience. I sent out my boy to buy two bottles of ink. It costs me 300 kyat for the two. I use fountain pens. How much was it, let's say? five years ago? If it was available then, maybe within the range of 20 kyat.

The Slorc is suggesting that the military could have 26 per cent of the seats, permanent seats, in the future parliament in Burma just as the Indonesian generals have?

I don't think it is going to take place in this country because of the ethnic minorities. We hear, maybe wrongly, but we hear that the ethnic minorities would fight because 25 per cent of the seats would be applied in their areas too. The Kachins, the Chins are suspicious that the Burmese would grow stronger.

How could we solve the stalemate in Burma?

The problem here is not very difficult compared to South Africa's Nelson Mandela and F W de Klerk. The situation here is very simple if you get to the root of this. When Slorc took power in 1988, in the aftermath of demonstrations which they suppressed violently, they said, "Alright, we're going to have polls." Then they set up the date, one-and a-half years away.

But the problem was that once the election was held and the party that won the majority was not theirs, they said we should draft the constitution first. They refused to hand over power. They established the National Convention only in 1992.

But then in the name of an open market economy they contacted foreign businessmen. They became richer and richer. They started to talk about keeping power. You can't compare this sort of scenario with the Indonesian scenario. There you have [Indonesian communist leader] D N Aidit who tried to stage a coup. I went to school in America with Gen Ahmad Yani. He was a close friend. Yani [Indonesian army chief in 1965] was killed during the coup and Suharto came to power. It is a different scenario. Here they are not keeping their original promises. These promises are their

You were arrested and harassed. You spent 12 years behind bars-seven during the Ne Win regime and another five under SLORC. Do you think you and your colleagues have the stamina to go on? Have you ever been tortured?

No, no, not on old person like me. But by the same question, you can ask Abel [Brig Gen David Oliver Abel, minister for National Planning and Economic Development] whether he could stand the stress? How long can he survive under the strain and the peace pressure? [giggling

Thailand is different. It could find someone who would come up with US$15 billion. Burma has great difficulty getting US$100 million.

In Indonesia, President Suharto has what is called the Berkeley Mafia, whose members advise him and work out the economy. But here? Abel?

Friday, August 08, 1997

Opposition comes from within

The Nation

WHEN the foreign ministers of the original Asean member countries established the grouping in 1967, they probably did not guess that the regional organisation would receive some of its most ardent criticism from its very own citizens.

"We were not born yet," laughed Augusto Miclat Jr, the Philippine activist who in 1994 organised the controversial Asia Pacific Conference on East Timor (APCET) in Manila, where Nobel laureate and East Timor resistance spokesman Jose Ramos-Horta and other internationally- recognised figures spoke about East Timor.

"People in the streets of Manila and Davao know more about East Timor than Asean," Miclat said.

Indonesian President Suharto reportedly ordered his aides to lodge protests against Philippine President Fidel Ramos, saying that the meeting was intended to corner Indonesia and should be prevented.

In a bid to put real pressure on Manila to thwart the activists, Indonesia even cancelled a plan to arrange a meeting between businessmen from the countries and threatened to stop the ongoing peace process in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao by pulling out of the Jakarta- brokered Moro dispute settlement.

Ramos, who initially said he could do nothing about the privately- sponsored seminar, finally bowed to the pressure and barred foreign participants from entering the Philippines. Officials from both countries cited "Asean solidarity and the principle of non-interference" to defend their actions.

"They used every trick in the book to cancel the conference," Miclat said on Wednesday, adding that such pressure was an example of how Asean had developed into "a political grouping [banded together] in response to criticism on human rights".

Indonesia invaded the tiny former Portuguese colony in 1975. Critics say Indonesian rule has led to the deaths of almost one third of East Timor's population of 750,000 due to ceaseless fighting, starvation and disease.

The United Nations does not recognise the Indonesian claim despite the unwavering support given to Jakarta by fellow Asean members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam and newly accepted members Burma and Laos.

"Asean has failed to deliver on the aims and principles of the [1967] Bangkok Declaration - the promotion of justice, freedom, peace and social progress. They have directly and indirectly suppressed people in East Timor, Burma and Cambodia," Malaysian Debbie Stothard of the Bangkok- based Alternative Asean Network on Burma said.

Stothard said a disturbing gap had emerged between Asean's original mission declaration and what it actually does. "The non-interference policy has overridden the principal issues."

According to Stothard, Asean governments ignored the civil rights movements of their respective countries as they attempted to create a regional economic boom that unfortunately has only advanced certain sections of the population.

"The strength of a region lies in its people. Large areas in Asean do not even have drinkable water, adequate education or social welfare," she said. Her words echoed Asean's declaration at the 1976 signing of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia that people were much more important than economic success.

The treaty clearly stated that Asean would strive to achieve social justice, the development of low-income and rural populations, as well as peace, harmony and stability in the region. The treaty also stated that a concerted effort would be made to stamp out drug production and trafficking.

Stothard said the admission of Burma could be interpreted as a breach of this last part of the treaty. The military regime of Burma, notorious for heroin, has been accused by several international organisations and independent groups of protecting the business activities of Golden Triangle opium warlords.

"By accepting Burma, Suharto strengthened his grip on East Timor," Miclat said, explaining that Suharto needed allies like the State Law and Order Restoration Council (Slorc) to face the growing criticism of Indonesia on human rights issues.

Miclat and Stothard are not the only ones attacking Asean. Non- governmental organisations throughout Asean countries - such as Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur), Aliran (Penang), the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation (Jakarta), Pijar Indonesia (Jakarta), the Philippines Alliance of Human Rights Advocates (Manila), Initiatives for International Dialogue (Davao), Forum Asia (Bangkok), Forum of the Poor (Bangkok) and the Singapore Democratic Party - are expressing their displeasure with the way their governments are running the show.

Most activists label Asean as an elitist club which does not involve the public in its activities. Harsher critics say Asean does nothing but maintain the status quo and protect authoritarian rulers like Suharto, former Singaporean prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Muhammad.

"In rural areas no one knows the name Asean. Even NGO members don't know much about Asean," Koul Panha, of the Phnom Penh-based Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association, said.

Observers say activists' numbers have grown mainly because better educated generations have emerged with the growing economies of Southeast Asia. These urban and often western-educated activists want their governments to listen to their opinions not only on local politics but also on foreign affairs.

"Let's build our own Asean," Indonesian poet, journalist and dissident Goenawan Mohamad said half-jokingly at a seminar in Jakarta on the admittance of Burma into Asean last month.

On the plus side, activists in cities like Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Manila and Jakarta believe that Asean's stubbornness on East Timor, Burma and Cambodia has helped prod dissidents into uniting.

Miclat jokingly dubbed Asean the "Association of Suharto's Exclusively Aligned Nations", saying that Suharto had obviously bullied Ramos and later did the same thing to then Malaysian deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim over a similar seminar Miclat held in Kuala Lumpur in 1996.

Miclat was deported from Kuala Lumpur and some of his Malaysian colleagues were jailed by police overnight. Miclat, who apparently does not have the word "quit" in his vocabulary, said the next meeting would take place in Bangkok in February of next year. Who will be the next politician to be bullied by Suharto, he wonders, and when will the people of East Timor cease being victims of Asean "solidarity"?