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Asiaweek -Sending Out Feelers (r)
On Sun, 9 Jan 2000, TIN KYI wrote:
> Asia Week, JANUARY 14, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 1
> Sending Out Feelers
> Behind the fresh initiatives to woo Yangon
> By ROGER MITTON
> Suddenly there is movement. And as with anything involving
> Myanmar, it is as surprising and unexpected as its outcome is
> unpredictable. Several countries have launched or are launching
> initiatives to engage Yangon's military junta. Will the diplomatic
> efforts lead to the regime lightening up? And how did they get started?
> To try to suss that out, it pays to track back a year.
Interesting that Mitton asks " Will the diplomatic efforts lead to the
regime lightening up?" in the first paragraph, then fails to address that
question elsewhere in the article. Yet, that is the most important
question, isn't it?
> At that time, there was recalcitrance and inflexibility on all sides. The junta and the National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi were as far apart as ever. Internationally, Yangon and the West remained pitted against each other in seemingly intractable positions, while Yangon's more conciliatory ASEAN colleagues were still preoccupied with economic recovery. It was status immobilus. Then an event unrelated to the political impasse sparked a reappraisal by many governments which led to the present plans.
> The event was the February 1999 Interpol conference on battling the drug trade. Amazingly, the regime allowed it to be held in Yangon. Its anti-narcotics chief, Col. Kyaw Thein, recalls: "Interpol approached us to hold this meeting; we did not go to them. We are regarded as the major opium-producing country in this region, but we get no assistance from outside to fight this problem. We just get all the blame." They got even more, when - caught off-guard by Yangon agreeing to host the meet - Western nations put political posturing ahead of trying to solve the drug scourge and decided to boycott the conference. On the wacky grounds that their attendance might give credibility to the regime, the U.S. and U.K. wimped out - and stiff-armed other European states to do the same (much to Interpol's chagrin). But ASEAN members and 23 other countries did attend. Notes one expatriate professional in Yangon: "The way this was reported in Europe and America was nasty and dishonest,!
saying only 'minor nations' attended. Does that mean Japan, Thailand, Indonesia, Australia, South Korea, Switzerland, China are minor nations?" It was a seminal moment, for the nations who broke ranks with the fatuous Western-inspired boycott are now among those at the forefront of the new initiatives.
> First, in May, the Swiss-based International Committee of the Red Cross began to visit prisons and other correctional facilities in Myanmar. Suu Kyi was unhappy about the move, saying it might be exploited by the regime, but she reserved judgment to see whether repeat visits would be allowed. They have been. Indeed, the ICRC has, in its own taciturn manner, been almost ecstatic about the access it has been given. European envoys say conditions for prisoners, including visiting rights, have improved and are even better than those in some ASEAN neighbors like Vietnam and Laos.
> Next came moves by Australia. Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said "a more creative approach" to Myanmar was needed and revealed that his country's human-rights commissioner, Chris Sidoti, would travel to Yangon. Other visits to Yangon took place - a fact-finding European Union troika in July, followed by South Korean officials, and then U.N. representative Alvaro de Soto arriving in October for his fifth attempt to break the political stalemate. Again, he got nowhere - with not only the junta but also with Suu Kyi, who found him too soft on the military.
> De Soto's approach had been akin to the so-called "carrot-and-stick" line proposed by a group of nations that met at Chilston Park in southeast England in late 1998. There, the Yangon regime was reportedly offered up to $1 billion under a plan linked to the World Bank and U.N. - if it would make political concessions. Though it desperately needed money, the regime declined. Foreign Minister Win Aung told Asiaweek: "This is like offering a banana to a monkey and asking it to dance. We are not monkeys. We won't dance."
> Realizing that this Western-inspired tactic was going nowhere, the Japanese and South Koreans explored other possibilities. Having welcomed the ICRC initiative, and applauded Australia's moves, they now sought their own "creative approaches" to Myanmar. At November's ASEAN Informal Summit in Manila, Japanese PM Obuchi Keizo held a landmark meeting with junta leader Gen. Than Shwe and other key figures. Three hours later, Than Shwe and his entourage met with South Korean President Kim Dae Jung. Both encounters heralded future developments.
> The first came two days after the Manila summit when former Japanese PM Hashimoto Ryutaro visited Yangon. He held talks with Than Shwe and other leaders and was unexpectedly treated to a dinner by the Myanmar leadership. Next day, his group visited hospitals, the port, high schools and the University of Yangon - which they were surprised to see appeared open. Hashimoto made four points to the generals. First, they should use the police not the military to maintain order. Second, they should fully reopen all the universities, closed three years ago after student protests. (The regime says it will reopen all the University of Yangon's undergrad schools early this year.) Third, Hashimoto told Than Shwe the regime should quicken moves to a market economy, especially in promoting more privatization. He urged them to consider employing more foreigners as consultants, including Japanese technical experts. Lastly, he said the generals should not push Suu Kyi into a corner so t!
hat she becomes the heroine of a tragedy. Instead, they should keep a working relationship with her. Junta leaders listened to Hashimoto's proposals, appreciating the non-threatening way in which they were made. They told him they needed help in education, medical facilities, power supply and agriculture. Hashimoto said he would relay the message to Tokyo.
> Aware of the Japanese initiatives, Suu Kyi cautioned in her New Year message: "As the richest Asian country and as a democracy Japan has a duty to try to promote human rights and democracy in other parts of Asia." Notably in Myanmar, she inferred, but left unstated.
> Suu Kyi has a point. When dealing with Japan, the regime is clearly fishing for quid pro quo benefits of an upfront financial nature, while moves toward multiparty democracy are a secondary consideration. Says one professional familiar with the regime: "If the Japanese offer something new or undertake further debt forgiveness or grant something, then I would expect movement in the various Japanese-led projects. Perhaps the regime has learned lessons from North Korea - incremental progress for favors."
> Together with the Japanese, Australian and ICRC actions, there is also movement on other fronts. From Jan. 10 to 15, Obuchi will visit Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, and his Myanmar initiatives will be on the agenda. In March the Koreans will host a so-called "Chilston-2" meeting in Seoul. Participants will try to build on the current momentum to bring Yangon in from the cold. South Korean Foreign Minister Hong Soon Young told Asiaweek: "One way is to isolate, antagonize and penalize. Another is to recognize, negotiate and eventually engage. You have to be tough when you say something to the Myanmar regime, but that does not mean pressuring them, because that verges on interference in their domestic affairs."
> Even among diehard anti-regime Western nations, there is a growing receptivity to new approaches. Recently, the envoys of several European and North American nations privately conceded that sanctions and ostracism are not working. But, given well-funded and efficient pro-Suu Kyi lobbies back home, they cannot risk publicly recommending policy changes. An official familiar with Hashimoto's visit says: "A more productive approach would be to promote economic reform, assist the Burmese to fight AIDS and drugs, and help them raise the living standards of the people. It would be the best way to bring democracy to Myanmar." The realization itself is a move forward, since in all prior discussions the welfare of the people has appeared to get the least attention. So that, at least, is progress._
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