Fri, 04 May 2001

Fears grow that Myanmar talks may run aground

By Andrew Marshall

YANGON (Reuters): Fears are growing in Myanmar that landmark talks between the ruling generals and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi are deadlocked, and that the process could founder unless clear signs of progress emerge soon.

News earlier this year that the military government had been holding secret meetings with Nobel Peace Prize winner Suu Kyi raised hopes that the political stalemate that has gripped Myanmar for more than a decade could finally be broken.

But the foreign governments and opposition activists who hailed the start of talks are growing increasingly restless. No details of the talks have emerged, and foreign diplomats warn that international goodwill won't last forever.

Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD), which has pledged to refrain from criticizing the government while the talks go on, says it still has faith in the dialogue.

But senior NLD leaders say they have no hard information on what has been happening at the closed-door talks.

"We don't know what is happening at the talks, but I believe there is no deadlock," a senior member of the NLD's central executive committee told Reuters in Yangon.

"But you can't go on keeping secrets for a long time. It must come out in the end," he said.

"This process must be made known to the people."

The NLD won Myanmar's last election in 1990 but has never been allowed to govern. Suu Kyi has been kept confined to her house since September with access to her strictly controlled.

Foreign diplomats in Yangon say their information suggests the talks have hit an impasse.

The message is coming not just from Western countries traditionally hostile to the military government, but also Asian nations which have tended to be more flexible in their approach.

"We have heard that the talks have been stagnant for a few weeks," a senior Asian diplomat told Reuters. "We must be patient however. We can't wait forever, but we can wait a while to see if the government has the intention to push dialogue forward."

In its first public comments on the talks, the government denied this week that they had stalled.

"This is not a public relations stunt," Foreign Minister Win Aung told reporters. "This is for the sake of the people of Myanmar -- 52 million people. We don't play games. If we played games, we might have played a long time ago."

But he said no timeframe could be set for the talks.

"There is no set time for the dialog or peace process in Northern Ireland or Sri Lanka or in the Middle East," Win Aung said. "This is not a process where you can start a countdown. It is a process that is timeless."

Opposition leaders and diplomats warn that unless details of the talks emerge, or the government makes further gestures of good faith, the delicate dialogue could unravel.

Foreign goodwill could also wane. Japan last month said it was giving Myanmar a US$29 million aid package as a token of support for the talks. Myanmar desperately needs more foreign financial support, but diplomats say it must earn this.

Most of the dozens of ethnic groups in Myanmar say they are prepared to wait for a basic agreement between Suu Kyi and the military before they join reconciliation talks.

But some ethnic groups and exiled opposition activists are fearful that a secret deal could be struck to sideline them, and signs of progress are needed to placate them.

"If they have a concrete reason to think the government is blocking dialog, people will not stand for that. All over the world they would not stand for it," the senior NLD member said.

"I understand that the government knows this too."

Diplomats say that, despite their concerns, it is still far too early to give up hope.

The NLD, too, says the process is bound to take time.

But confidence-building is essential.

The government has already made some gestures, stopping attacks on the NLD in the official press and releasing more than 80 political detainees earlier this year.

The NLD and diplomats say another visit by UN special envoy Razali Ismail would be a key step in bolstering the process. They say Razali played a central role in brokering the talks.

"Mr Razali, the peacemaker, must be here at this moment. He is the one who will explain," the NLD member said.

But Win Aung said no visit by Razali was scheduled.

"He will come at an appropriate time," he said.

Diplomats say that while the government faces no serious internal political threat, the country's precarious economic situation is the main factor pushing the military towards dialogue with the opposition.

"Clearly the economy was a major factor leading to these talks," the Asian diplomat said. "If the (economic) situation goes on this way they have no hope."