Oct 14, 2009

Agence France Presse: Suu Kyi back in Myanmar’s political arena

Bangkok — Although still under house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi has returned to an active political role by initiating dialogue with both Myanmar’s junta and Western nations, analysts say.

In the space of seven days, after a Yangon court rejected the pro-democracy leader’s appeal against her recently extended house arrest, her status appeared to shift rapidly from political prisoner to potential key negotiator.

“She is politically active and significant. She still has a role in Burma,” said Win Min, an activist and scholar in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, using Myanmar’s former name.

Events over the past week in the military-ruled nation have moved at a dizzying pace when compared with the stagnation of recent months.

Suu Kyi, detained for around 14 of the past 20 years, had two meetings with Aung Kyi, the labour minister and official liaison between her and the junta, the first such talks since January 2008.

The frail 64-year-old was subsequently granted permission by the ruling generals to discuss Western sanctions imposed on Myanmar with top United States, British and Australian diplomats in Yangon on Friday.

“She was very very engaged in the subject, very interested in going into detail on what she wanted to talk about and she seemed as ever very eloquent,” said British ambassador Andrew Heyn in an interview with BBC.

Suu Kyi wrote a letter to Senior General Than Shwe at the end of September offering her co-operation in getting Western sanctions lifted, after years of favouring harsh measures against the generals.

Contrary to expectations, the junta chief seems to have accepted her proposal — at least for the time being.

“She would like to see herself as a pivotal point in the relations between the junta and the US. They might be prepared to allow this to some extent,” said former British ambassador Derek Tonkin.

The military regime has promised elections for 2010, the first in Myanmar since 1990, when Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party won by a landslide but was never allowed to take power.

With the opposition leader set to remain out of the way next year thanks to the recent 18-month extension to her house arrest, many observers believe the polls are a sham that will only strengthen the junta’s power.

The reclusive regime chief, according to some analysts, is likely to try to use his opponent — whom he loathes — to restore his image for the elections.

“Than Shwe is the only one who took all these decisions,” said the activist Win Min, referring to the rejection of Suu Kyi’s appeal and her various subsequent meetings in recent days.

“He decided not to release her but to give her a little bit of freedom so that he could appear somehow as someone flexible,” he added.

But Suu Kyi’s lawyer Nyan Win was confident she could play an increasingly important part in developments over the coming months, especially following Washington’s recent decision to re-engage the junta.

“We assume that her meeting with diplomats to lift sanctions is the start of her political role because sanctions themselves are a matter of politics,” Nyan Win told AFP.

“Aung San Suu Kyi always has the right to participate in politics. It is not a concern whether or not she’s under house arrest,” he added.

Yet scepticism remains that the iron-fisted regime could repeat past behaviour and offer goodwill gestures before violently closing all doors to dialogue again.

One fundamental sign of progress would be a meeting between Suu Kyi and Than Shwe himself, as the pair have not met for years. Nyan Win raised the possibility of such talks on Friday.

But “The Lady”, as she is widely known in Myanmar, would have to consult with other NLD members first and also see minister Aung Kyi again before a meeting with the junta leader would be possible, former ambassador Tonkin suggested.

He acknowledged however that the two sides were at least finally communicating.

“We don’t know where this conversation is going to go. But it is taking place. It’s the best game in town at the present time and we need to see where it goes,” he said.”>