It has certainly been an interesting few weeks in Burmese politics with two meetings between Aung San Suu Kyi and government minister Aung Kyi; a government press conference inviting her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) to take part in a “national reconciliation process”; and Suu Kyi’s first political trip outside Rangoon since her latest release from detention, passing off without any sign of obstruction or violence from the authorities.
Things unarguably feel hugely different from the ruling elite’s previous strategy of locking the democracy icon away, refusing her requests for negotiations and even launching a murderous attack against her and NLD supporters during her last brief spell of freedom. However the military generals, despite hiding behind pseudo-civilian government, have not changed their spots: alarming evidence of crimes against humanity and war crimes along with the continued detention of almost two thousand political prisoners underscore the true nature of the regime. In spite of the negotiations and apparent detente, Suu Kyi has understandably urged caution amongst her supporters.
So what is behind the government’s change in tact if not a change of heart? One credible theory is a purely cynical attempt to exploit the NLD and its inspirational leader. Bringing the NLD into the “reconciliation process” will give the government an air of legitimacy, billing it as one powerful player in a fair and pluralistic political set-up, rather than the puppet of the generals, shoe-horned into control through a rigged election and a sham constitution. Feigning a willingness to negotiate with the opposition could strengthen the government’s bid for the Chair of ASEAN in 2014 and even allow progress towards their ultimate goal of ending international sanctions. And all of this without giving anything away other than a couple of meetings with a relatively low-level official and allowing Suu Kyi to venture out of Rangoon without attempting to kill her.
The second possibility is that the government’s moves are reactive, rather than proactive, reflecting a fear or even desperation amongst the ruling elite. Growing opposition to government damning projects, mass support for Suu Kyi despite her years locked away from the eyes of the Burmese people, and the ever more likely prospect of an intentional commission being formed to investigate crimes against humanity, will all have shaken the generals and their cronies. And whilst they have largely succeeded in keeping images of the Arab Spring out of circulation, few of those in power will be able to forget the scenes of control being ripped from the hands of dictators in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria. With unrest even bubbling in neighbouring Tibet, it is conceivable that the ruling elite are trying to limit the chances of civil unrest in Burma by appearing to accommodate Suu Kyi and the NLD.
These two theories are not mutually exclusive and in reality a combination of both is likely to be in play. The generals are clearly sensing an opportunity to push their ‘rebrand’ which has so far been received sceptically at best by the international community. Yet at the same time they are afraid of Suu Kyi and the support that she carries, recognising that their two-decade attempt to isolate her from the political scene has dramatically failed.
This leaves the opposition movement in a precarious position; facing the challenge of utilising the generals’ shift from outward thuggery to calculated engagement without playing directly into their hands. If the NLD plays its cards right, genuine progress may be made on issues such as political prisoners, ethnic minorities and poverty. If however, it goes in too fast or gives away too much ground, it risks legitimising and entrenching the generals in their latest guise.
It will be a testing time- but the NLD has the advantage of Asia’s strongest and most inspiring political figure at the helm. If anyone can bring lasting change to Burma, she can.