|December 13, 2001||atimes.com|
Exiles lose patience with dialogue
By Marwaan Macan-Markar
BANGKOK - Exiled Myanmar human rights activists are losing patience with the woefully slow progress made in over a year's dialogue between the military government and the political opposition, as well as a UN special envoy's quest to nudge Yangon toward more democracy.
Despite these talks, the release of nearly 200 political prisoners, and yet another recent visit to Myanmar by UN envoy Razali Ismail, there is little sign that the country's strongmen are in the mood for political change. "There are no clues to gauge the direction the talks are taking," said Ye Hutt, a ranking member of the Bangkok-based Myanmar Lawyers' Council, one of many groups formed by Myanmar exiles living in neighboring Thailand. "Everything is behind closed doors, and the rulers are tight-lipped," he adds.
The talks have been shrouded in secrecy since they began 14 months ago between the government and the opposition, led by the detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. "There is a need for openness, like a statement from the government revealing its stand on this effort," Ye Hutt says.
In the past few days some indicators of how the dialogue is progressing have emerged, but they have been contradictory. Aung San Suu Kyi has warned that full dialogue has yet to start, while the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) has said that it is committed to creating a "functioning democracy".
"It is not that dialogue has begun," Japanese Foreign Minister Kabun Muto quoted Suu Kyi as saying. "It is a period in which both sides are attempting to erase mutual mistrust." The generals, meanwhile, said in a statement released on Monday that they are working with Suu Kyi to find a political settlement. "Today, we are all in the process of joining hands, walking on the same path toward our common objective," they said.
Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) have also said that talks with the military must start yielding more tangible results. The NLD said that any further delays in reaching democracy could lead to "undesirable negative effects". "It is now necessary to develop, step by step, the confidence building talks between the SPDC and NLD into meaningful dialogues," the NLD said.
Soe Aung of the Bangkok-based National Council of the Union of Myanmar (NCUB) also feels that the ongoing dialogue initiated by Razali Ismail, a former Malaysian diplomat, is slow to show results. "The SPDC must show political will to speed up the talks," Soe Aung said. Following his visit to Yangon, Razali was reticent about the substance of the talks he had with members of the junta in the Myanmar capital and Suu Kyi. However, he was quoted as being hopeful about "the eventual outcome" of his mission, which is to push for human rights and democracy in a country that has been oppressed by the dictates of a military regime that came to power in 1988.
But Aung Zaw, editor of Irrawaddy, an independent magazine that covers Myanmar from the Thai city of Chiang Mai, does not share this optimism. "It is very unlikely that an agreement will be reached. I don't share his views, nor do a lot of people inside Myanmar," Aung Zaw said. "Razali's understanding of Myanmar is also limited."
Some activists believe that this harsh assessment, including the critique that the Yangon government is gaining political mileage from the talks, is not misplaced in the face of evidence filtering out of Myanmar. While Yangon claims that it has permitted the NLD to reopen its offices in the towns, the reality reveals the limits on the freedom of association - members of the government's intelligence wing have become a permanent fixture nearby, monitoring NLD activities, activists say.
There are also discrepancies in Yangon's assertion that it has freed close to 200 political prisoners, largely NLD activists, since January, the month Razali's initiative became known. "Most of them were freed because their sentences had expired," asserts Hutt, the Myanmar lawyer. "But they have not been so keen to free the other political prisoners, about 1,500 or more, some of the strongest NLD voices."
Then, there is the long-time criticism of Yangon for its use of forced labor, including that by the International Labor Organization (ILO) in November. A team from this United Nations agency found that forced labor still exists in Myanmar, a charge that exposed the SPDC's failure to end such abusive form of work. The ILO team, which spent four weeks in September and October crisscrossing Myanmar, said that forced labor is being used by the military and by the authorities for government infrastructure. The large military presence at Myanmar's border areas means they are particularly vulnerable, it added.
For Myanmar human rights activists, the ILO's critique underscored Yangon's failure to implement the law it had introduced a year ago against forced labor. "Clearly there is a gap between what the government says and does," observed Soe Aung of the NCUB. "The ILO team's report reveals the real situation regards the SPDC's attitude toward rights."
According to both regional and international human rights monitors, forced labor in Myanmar ranges from clearing forests, repairing roads and carrying goods for the military, to more dangerous work such as minesweeping. In addition, there have been continued reports of "widespread human rights abuses, including extra-judicial killings and rape", stated the Alternative ASEAN Network on Myanmar (ALTSEAN), a Bangkok-based rights lobby. "There is no redress for such violations as there is widespread disrespect for the rule of law and no independent judiciary to punish such," it said.
Human rights abuses are also the order of the day in the conflict-affected areas such as the states of Shan, Karen and Mon, according to the New York-based Human Rights Watch. "In the west, the SPDC continue to deprive the ethnic minority Muslim Rohingya of full citizenship rights," the group said.
"The SPDC has to negotiate with all the ethnic minorities for democracy to prevail," said Myint Myint San, a Myanmar activist at ALTSEAN. "The government has to recognize women and children, too, unlike now, where they are a low priority."
Still, some consider it an achievement that the dialogue in Myanmar has continued this long. The longer it keeps going, the harder it may be to end. Meanwhile, people like Soe Aung are clinging on to hope that the talks will prompt change: "We need to make this process irreversible."
(Inter Press Service, with additional reporting by Asia Times Online)
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