As ethnic leaders called for new talks to end Burma’s political standoff, the president of Timor-Leste spoke to fellow Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi about a possible mediating role.
BANGKOK — Despite doubts about how Burma’s ruling generals will respond to recent calls for renewed talks to resolve the country’s ethnic issues, supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi say they believe her proposal for a second Panglong Conference is vital to any future reconciliation and reform in the country.
“The international community perhaps does not fully understand the importance of resolving ethnic issues and preventing renewed conflict in Burma,” said Khin Ohmar, the coordinator of the Burma Partnership, a Thailand-based coalition of Burmese civil society groups.
Burma is the site of some of the world’s longest-running civil conflicts, and recent months have seen increased troop levels in ethnic minority regions near the Thai, Chinese and Indian borders. Ethnic groups have consistently called for a federal polity in Burma, instead of a centrally governed unitary state. The 2008 Constitution provides for regional parliaments, but these fall short of what the ethnic leadership wants.
Nai Hang Thar, the secretary of the New Mon State Party, representing one of Burma’s largest ethnic minority groups, says that “there are many people ready to follow [Suu Kyi’s] lead,” while Chin leader Kyae O Beak Thung said that “We hope to meet with Daw Suu as her father triumphantly discussed with ethnic leaders in Panglong.”
The 1947 Panglong Conference was held by Aung San, Burma’s first post-independence leader and the father of Suu Kyi. The aim was to find agreement among Burma’s main ethnic groups on a decentralized governance system for the new state.
The recently released Suu Kyi wants to hold “a 21st-century Panglong Conference,” according to Moe Zaw Oo, the joint secretary of the National League for Democracy (Liberated Area), claiming that she is “uniquely positioned to facilitate progress toward genuine national reconciliation.”
However, there is long-established opposition to “the spirit of Panglong” among Burma’s military elites. The 1962 coup that first brought the Burmese military to power was justified by apparent threats to national unity and stability by the provision of autonomy to ethnic groups.
To date, the ruling junta has not commented on or reacted to Suu Kyi’s release or her statements since then, and the junta’s track record does not suggest it will compromise.
Nonetheless, earlier today Timor-Leste President Jose Ramos-Horta signaled his desire to visit Burma in 2011 and meet with Suu Kyi and the country’s military rulers.
Ramos-Horta spoke to Suu Kyi by telephone prior to his announcement, telling her that “it is time to establish a certain distance in order to give space for dialogue between the ruling regime and opposition, in the attempt to find a path for the gradual evolution of the situation in the country.”
Like Suu Kyi, Ramos-Horta is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, but he has tempered his opposition to the ruling junta in recent times, calling on the US and EU to drop sanctions against the regime, according to Soe Aung of the Forum for Democracy in Burma.
Shortly after her release on Nov. 13, Suu Kyi said that she will consider the sanctions after consulting with the Burmese people. The statement issued by Ramos-Horta today made no mention of whether the pair discussed the sanctions issue.
“I hope he will not be led along by the generals,” said Khin Ohmar when asked about the Timorese President’s suitability as a mediator. “It will be interesting to see how Than Shwe responds to this,” she added.
Based on past experience, Ramos-Horta may have his work cut out for him persuading junta leader Snr-Gen Than Shwe to enter into any dialogue process.
Speaking at a forum on post-election Burma, held at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University on Tuesday, Aung Naing Oo, head of the Chiang Mai-based Vahu Development Institute and a frequent critic of his fellow Burmese exile activists, suggested one potential carrot.
There is “a need to bring the military out of isolation, and perhaps hint to them about ending the arms embargo for example, at least to convince them to enter into dialogue,” he said.
It is not clear whether Ramos-Horta hopes to visit before or after the formation of new government in Burma, which may take place in early to mid-February. By that time, Indonesia will have assumed the presidency of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), which Timor-Leste is seeking to join. The consent of the Burmese junta is needed before Dili can accede to Asean.
Ramos-Horta was previously touted as a potential mediator in Thailand’s political conflict, which culminated in a bloody stand-off between the Thai army and an armed faction of the anti-government “Red Shirts,” and ultimately ended on May 19 when the army overran the protester stronghold in central Bangkok.
Since her release, Suu Kyi has spoken of the need for “a peaceful revolution” in Burma, but has simultaneously held out olive branches to the junta, suggesting that she might be willing to support calls for the removal of sanctions and reverse her previous opposition to foreign tourists visiting the country.
On the other hand, she has sought the reinstatement of her National League for Democracy party, which was legally dissolved after it boycotted the Nov. 7 general election, which was won by the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) in a landslide amid widespread allegations of “advance voting” fraud and ballot stuffing. Official results have not yet been released, but the USDP has been accredited with 76 percent of the vote, according to Chinese state media.
Suu Kyi has pledged to look into allegations of electoral fraud, and according to Burma Partnership, ordinary Burmese are willing to cooperate. However, a fee of one million kyat (US $1,136) is needed to file one allegation of fraud with the authorities, with a two-year jail terms possible if the case is lost.
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