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Opinion

Wider dialogue in Burma

The military in Burma may or may not be ready for meaningful and inclusive dialogue with the opposition as it handed over power on March 30 to the government elected last November. If it were so inclined, it could simply respond to the offer that pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi made last weekend for talks to clear up “misunderstandings.” Even after the new, nominally civilian government takes office, the military ― or Tatmadaw ― will continue to wield dominant, if not ultimate, power. It is a reality that Suu Kyi has chosen not to ignore. At the same time that the Tatmadaw marked Armed Forces Day on March 27, her National League for Democracy also celebrated the resistance that her father, General Aung San, led against the Japanese 66 years ago.

Beyond that bit of shared history, the two sides remain far apart. The unconditional release of more than 2,100 political prisoners remains an NLD priority demand unlikely to be met soon. Now disbanded for boycotting what it considered an unfair election, the NLD has no seat in any of the new parliamentary houses. Yet, any attempt at conciliation will fail if the military continues to marginalize Suu Kyi and her movement. Now free from house arrest, she is keeping an open mind on whether the new government will bring change.

If the Tatmadaw adopts a similar attitude and is willing to resolve the undisclosed misunderstandings, better relations and prospects could well result. No matter how limited, the demilitarization of rule has begun to diversify opinion. The National Democratic Force, which broke away from the NLD to contest the election, held talks last week with the United States’ charge d’affaires Larry Dinger on lifting Western sanctions. If more voices are heard on this and other critical issues, in or outside parliament, a clearer articulation of Myanmar needs and interests would emerge.

The world would then find it easier to help the country along the road to conciliation even as it finds it harder to ignore the more excessive abuses. Western powers should not remain hung up on the perplexing sanctions question, but engage with even more groups, including those in the new political structure, ethnic minorities as well as the opposition. The U.S. and the United Nations should appoint full-time envoys to coordinate and focus on conciliatory initiatives.

Although it has yet to meet with complete success, ASEAN’s positive engagement policy has endured recent years in good shape. It is time for other countries to adopt similar approaches towards helping the Myanmar people build a peaceful and prosperous country.

(Editorial, The Straits Times)
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