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Burma’s military regime scores point by Suu Kyi’s refusal to talk

September 24, 1997

BANGKOK, Thailand (AP) _ By spurning an olive branch from one of Burma’s top generals, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her democratic party have found themselves in the unusual position of appearing to be the bad guys in Burma’s ongoing political drama.

Last week, Gen. Khin Nyunt, one of the four most powerful generals in the military government, offered to meet with Aung Shwe, the chairman of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, and two executive committee members to discuss their differences.

But Khin Nyunt still refused to meet with Suu Kyi, the party’s general-secretary, or vice-chairmen Tin Oo and Kyi Maung, the party leaders who enjoy the most public support.

Suu Kyi believed that by courting Aung Shwe, Khin Nyunt was trying to engineer a split in the party, known as the NLD, and ultimately weaken the democratic movement.

So the party turned the general down.

Did Suu Kyi and the democrats miss a chance to begin resolving Burma’s political stalemate? With an NLD congress to begin on Saturday, could Aung Shwe have convinced Khin Nyunt not to launch the mass arrests that always accompany such events?

Or did the NLD simply sidestep a clever ploy by the regime to sow divisions in their party?

Either way, for the first time since seizing power in 1988, the regime _ the State Law and Order Restoration Council, or SLORC _ succeeded in appearing reasonable and open to compromise, while Suu Kyi came off as stubborn and selfish.

That was no small accomplishment considering the regime’s usually poor press and its pariah status in the international community.

Even some NLD members were troubled by the rejection.

``Let the meeting happen,″ said one NLD member in Rangoon who spoke only on condition of anonymity. ``Make friends first, make demands later. If they don’t relent on meeting (Suu Kyi), then don’t meet again.″

While most Western diplomats publicly supported Suu Kyi’s stand, privately some expressed disappointment.

``The SLORC really looks good because they made an offer and the NLD rejected it,″ said Aung Zaw, an exiled Burmese journalist who covers political developments in his former country. ``I’m sure the NLD has made a mistake.″

Suu Kyi rose to prominence during the pro-democracy uprising that was crushed in 1988. Her party won a landslide victory in May 1990 elections, capturing 396 of 485 parliamentary seats, but the military kept the results from being honored.

Suu Kyi, the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize-winner, has been calling for a dialogue with the military government ever since she was released from six years of house arrest in 1995.

Had the Khin Nyunt-Aung Shwe meeting taken place, it would have been only the second face-to-face encounter between a key member of the regime and an NLD leader after more than two years of increasing repression and arrests of party members.

Still, many NLD members, and other opponents of the regime, agree with Suu Kyi’s belief that Khin Nyunt is trying to split the party.

``This clearly shows they are testing the unity of the NLD,″ said San, a party organizer in Rangoon.

``Talking with Aung Shwe but not Suu Kyi is typical of the SLORC’s divide and conquer strategy,″ said Ner Dah, a spokesman for the ethnic insurgent Karen National Union.

The SLORC weakened the Karen resistance, which has been fighting for autonomy since 1949, by encouraging Buddhists to break away from the group’s Christian leadership. Similar tactics coaxed other ethnic insurgents into cease-fires.

Khin Nyunt may also have other motives behind his overture. With the Burmese economy deteriorating because of currency problems and rising inflation, talks might provide some optimism to the Burmese public, and to foreign businessmen, some of whom are souring on the SLORC’s intransigence.

Talks might also relieve pressure from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which admitted Burma as a member in July over objections from Western countries but has urged the SLORC to open a dialogue with Suu Kyi.

Several Asian diplomats said the NLD should have been willing to meet with Khin Nyunt at least a couple more times and try to work out some problems before drawing a line in the sand.

Despite the SLORC’s history of divide-and-rule tactics, there is no way to know with certainty what Khin Nyunt’s intentions are.

Although his rhetoric is hard-line, he is regarded as the most intelligent member of the ruling junta. He is constrained, however, by even more hard-line generals who would like to reduce his power.

If the talks with Aung Shwe had gone well, could Khin Nyunt have persuaded the other generals to accept meetings that included Suu Kyi? Would Khin Nyunt even consider such a possibility?

As long as the democrats and the general aren’t talking, there will be few answers to the continuing puzzle of Burmese politics.

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