Political Thaw Ahead?

After 12 years of cracking down on pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s military junta is finally showing hopeful signs of reconciliation with its former political foe. The news broke in late January that Lieutenant-General Khin Nyunt, the junta’s intelligence chief, had met with Suu Kyi for secret negotiations in October. Suu Kyi, who was placed under house arrest by the junta, won a sweeping electoral victory in 1990 and has since enjoyed a large following, despite her hampered ability to lead.

But why the junta’s sudden, and drastic, change of heart? According to press reports, the junta recently started engaging Suu Kyi in talks in the hope of convening a constitutional convention to draw up a new charter. The charter, the reports say, cannot succeed without the participation of Suu Kyi’s party.

Singapore’s independent The Straits Times (Jan. 22) speculated on the junta’s motivations, saying, “[I]t could be friendly Malaysian mediation under United Nations auspices, or the deteriorating economic situation, or both....Both sides may finally have understood the futility of seeking each other’s ‘utter destruction.’ ”

A Jan. 14 editorial in Tokyo’s independent Japan Times called the news of reconciliation talks between the two sides “a welcome surprise.” But what the paper saw as most encouraging was the talks’ secrecy and the length of the contacts, which “indicate that Myanmar’s leaders are not just going through the motions to ease international pressure.”

The Burmese opposition magazine The Irrawaddy, which is published in Thailand, remained cautious in its optimism, however, noting that the junta’s generals are “known for pulling the rug out from under everybody’s high expectations at the slightest sign of a risk to their own political survival.” The January editorial went on to opine, “Even with the right combination of favorable conditions, nothing will happen unless [both] parties are acting in good faith.”