With the administration of President Barrack Obama of the US expanding bilateral official contacts with the Myanmar military junta and embarking on a policy of probing engagement without lifting sanctions for the present, interesting steps are being taken in the US-Myanmar political minuet.
2.The US seems to have realised that total democracy in Myanmar is not for tomorrow and that the Army cannot be expected to totally renounce power in the near future. A short-term plan of free elections to pave the way for a genuine sharing of the power between the military leadership and the elected political leaders accompanied by a mutually acceptable time-table for reducing the Army's role in governance will be a better workable option.
3. The probing engagement has been not only between the US and the Junta, but also simultaneously between Aung San Suu Kyi and the Junta. Her rhetoric as well as that of her party---the National League For Democracy---show signs of softening and she has made significant overtures to the Junta by not opposing the lifting of sanctions if a satisfactory arrangement for doing so can be found and has offered to make suggestions to the Junta as to how to go about its task of getting the international sanctions lifted.
4.Her decision to appeal against her recent conviction by a court in a case relating to a trespass into her Government-guarded house by an American national, which led to an extension of her house arrest by another 18 months, was another significant move. Though her appeal has been rejected by a lower court, she reportedly intends appealing against the rejection to a higher court. She is a very proud person and it was not in her nature to appeal against her extended house arrest. Normally, she would have ignored the extension with the contempt it deserved.
5. The fact that she appealed against it in a lower court and is now appealing to a higher court against the rejection by the lower court is an indicator of delicately-orchestrated moves by the Obama Administration, the Junta and her party to move towards a situation where her house arrest will stand lifted without the Junta suffering any loss of face.
6. Another significant development has been her October 3 meeting with Aung Kyi, the Labour Minister, who was designated by the Junta as the interlocutor with her on behalf of the Junta after the Buddhist monks' agitation in September,2007. He was so nominated by the Junta under international pressure to hold a dialogue with her . Immediately after his nomination, there were six meetings with her in quick
succession, but these meetings dried up after January,2008. Aung Kyi's decision to meet her after 21 months---whatever be the subjects they discussed--- was a message meant to be conveyed to the US by the Junta of its seriousness in wanting to press ahead with its search for a workable accommodation with the US. One should not be surprised if he had, inter alia, discussed with her a modus vivendi for ending her house arrest. Such a modus vivendi could be in the form of the Junta lifting the house arrest in return for an informal commitment by her not to travel outside Yangon for the present.
7. The US has its own agenda in seeking to try out a policy of engagement with the Junta. The most important of its objectives would be to find out details of Myanmar's nuclear co-operation with Russia, Pakistan and North Korea and to persuade the Junta to reverse this co-operation and to renounce its nuclear aspirations in return for the lifting of the sanctions. Agreement on a time-bound plan for the
restoration of a democratic process would be an equally important objective. Without any progress on the second objective, the Obama Administration might find it difficult to justify to the Congress and the US public its decision to engage the Junta.
8. The US is at the same time anxious to prevent its initiatives being seen in Beijing and New Delhi as likely to be detrimental to their long-standing presence and interests in Myanmar.Announcing the new policy at Washington on September 29,2009, Kurt Campbell, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs, said:"We will intensify our engagement with Association of South East Asian Nations,
China, and India to press the Burmese leadership to reform and to participate responsibly in the international community.The dialogue will include specific discussion of democracy and human rights inside Burma, cooperation on international security issues such as nonproliferation and compliance with UN resolutions 1874 and 1718, and areas that could be of mutual benefit such as counter-narcotics
and recovery of World War II era remains.Lifting sanctions now would send the wrong signal. We will tell the Burmese that we will discuss easing sanctions only if they take actions on our core concerns. We will reserve the option to apply additional targeted sanctions, if warranted, by events inside Burma.We will continue to push for the immediate and unconditional release of Aung San Suu Kyi and all political prisoners, an end to conflicts with ethnic minorities and gross human rights violations and initiation of a credible internal political dialogue with the democratic opposition and ethnic minority leaders on elements of reconciliation and reform.We will also press Burma to comply with its international obligations, including on nonproliferation, ending any prohibited military or proliferation-related cooperation with North Korea, and full compliance with United Nations 1874 and 1718.If Burma makes meaningful progress towards these goals, it will be possible to improve the relationship with the United States in a step-by-step process. We recognise that this will likely be a long and difficult process, and we are prepared to sustain our efforts on this front."
9. While the US has thus publicly articulated its view of the road ahead, the Junta-----apart from indicating a desire to improve relations with the US---is yet to do so. Any arrangement ultimately worked out between the Obama Administration and the Junta, to be effective, has to have the support of not only the US public and Congress, but also the Myanmar public and political class. Any agreement that does not provide for a honourable and meaningful political role for Aung San Suu Kyi is unlikely to be acceptable to large sections of public and political opinion in both countries. The Junta has already firmly ruled out any Governmental role for her by including in the Constitution a provision debarring a Myanmar citizen of foreign origin or a Myanmar citizen married to a foreigner from holding office as the head of State or Government.
10. There have been some indications that this bar against her because of her marriage to a foreigner need not apply to her role as the leader of her party and to any aspirations she may have of becoming a member of the new Parliament to be elected. The Junta is determined not to let her become the President or the Prime Minister. At the same time, it seems to be trying to keep the door open for her
playing a role similar to Mrs.Sonia Gandhi in India after the 2004 elections--- renouncing any Governmental status and power while continuing to retain her political status and power as the leader and guide of her party.
11. If the Junta offers this way out, will Aung San Suu Kyi accept it?Or will she herself make such an offer? (4-10-09)
( The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org )