Will Myanmar junta chief meet the lady?
NOV 19 — The question on many people's minds in Yangon these days is whether Senior General Than Shwe will meet “the lady”, as Aung San Suu Kyi is known across Myanmar.
She requested a meeting with the regime's supremo in a letter dated Nov 11 to explain how she would cooperate in tasks “beneficial to the country”.
If Than Shwe were to meet her, it could be a turning point in the political stalemate that began when her National League for Democracy (NLD) won a 1990 general election whose results were not recognised by the army.
But analysts are cautious. The senior general is trying to engineer a potential milestone in modern Myanmar's history — ensuring that army-backed parties win next year's election without any rigging and that the outcome is deemed credible by the international community.
At the Asean summit in Thailand last month, Prime Minister Thein Sein reportedly told other Asean leaders that if Suu Kyi “maintains a good attitude, it is possible that the Myanmar authorities will relax the current measures”.
But the decision to release her is almost certainly in the hands of just one man — the senior general.
Suu Kyi has spent most of the last 20 years in some form of detention — mostly house arrest in her dilapidated lakeside bungalow. In August, she was sentenced to another 18 months of house arrest for harbouring an uninvited American citizen.
An early release may be possible for the Nobel laureate, but such a move may well be just a gesture to appease international opinion.
Also, she would at most be allowed only a small degree of participation, if any at all, in active politics.
If Than Shwe were to release her, then a critical factor would be timing the move so that she will have minimal or no impact on his plans.
Meanwhile on Sunday, at the first US-Asean summit in Singapore, United States President Barack Obama told Thein Sein that Suu Kyi should be released.
The message was not new but the messenger and how it was delivered to the Myanmar leadership were unprecedented. It was the first time in years that a Myanmar leader had a face-to-face meeting with a US president, and it took place against a backdrop of Washington's new policy of engaging Myanmar.
Thein Sein reportedly did not react to the request, but thanked the US for its new policy of engagement rather than isolation.
But US officials are not under any illusion that Washington can force change in Myanmar, at least as long as Than Shwe maintains his iron grip.
The new US policy is one of engagement with the regime while maintaining economic sanctions against it. Obama has held out the promise of lifting the sanctions if there is some positive signal from the regime.
Raising the issue of Suu Kyi was meant to remind the regime that the US, even as it engages more with the regime on other fronts, has not watered down its focus on democracy, said historian Thant Myint U, author of “A River Of Lost Footsteps”.
But he pointed out that should the US take the “long-term, multi-year view”, then many things are possible.
If the US depends too much on short-term change, its efforts may go down the same dark tunnel as had previous attempts to engage the regime, he said.
Suu Kyi's current sentence will ensure that she remains in detention through the elections, which are scheduled for the middle of next year, making it impossible for her to take part in the process.
Most Myanmar analysts, used to occasional signs of progress congealing into stalemate, are either cautious or pessimistic about the shift in US policy — and are not sanguine about Suu Kyi's release.
But if the senior general met her, it would reignite hope that she would be set free. — The Straits Times