Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Myanmar Dissidents Contemplate Concessions

With Myanmar's military government expected to sentence dissident Aung San Suu Kyi to further detention as early as Tuesday, some of her exiled supporters are considering new tactics -- such as negotiating with the regime -- to break a decades-old political stalemate in the troubled Southeast Asian nation.

Take a look at major events in the life of famed dissident Aung San Suu Kyi.

Ms. Suu Kyi faces up to five years in prison for allegedly violating the terms of a government-imposed house arrest in May, when she allowed an uninvited American well-wisher to visit her lakeside home without state approval.

Myanmar officials have said a verdict will come Tuesday, though some analysts say the decision may be delayed due to the poor health of John Yettaw, the American visitor, who is also on trial and has reportedly suffered from epileptic seizures recently. The verdict was delayed once before, after authorities in Myanmar, previously known as Burma, said they needed more time to review the facts in the case.

Analysts and exiles expect the court to eventually find Ms. Suu Kyi guilty, resulting in further detention for the 64-year-old Nobel laureate who has spent nearly 14 of the past 20 years under arrest.

Such an outcome, combined with Myanmar's miserable economic conditions and the likelihood that Ms. Suu Kyi won't be able to participate in elections the government plans for 2010, are prodding exile groups to contemplate new strategies, including seeking negotiations with Myanmar's military regime and possibly dropping some earlier demands that have blocked rapprochement.

Ms. Suu Kyi's supporters have traditionally taken a hard-line approach towards talking with the regime, unless it agrees to free hundreds of political prisoners and recognize the results of a 1990 election won overwhelmingly by Ms. Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy Party.

Associated Press

Supporters of Myanmar's pro-democracy movement demonstrate at the Myanmar Embassy in Tokyo on Saturday.

Dissident groups plan to discuss further details at a convention in Jakarta, Indonesia on Wednesday and Thursday. At least 10 major dissident groups are expected to attend, including the Women's League of Burma and representatives from the NLD, along with Mr. Sein Win and others. People who intend to participate say it may be the first time in decades so many groups have come together to forge a common position in dealing with the Myanmar junta.

"We're not only thinking about what we want, but what the regime can and cannot accept. It's a move back to the center," says Nyo Ohn Myint, a senior opposition figure who's been in exile in Thailand and the U.S. for 20 years. He says a majority of senior NLD leaders now support some form of compromise with Myanmar's military government, including possibly writing off the 1990 vote.

Mr. Nyo Ohn Myint says he believes Ms. Suu Kyi is also willing to compromise, including accepting some kind of role for the military in government, though it is difficult to confirm Ms. Suu Kyi's views while she is under arrest.

Many dissidents are focusing on the regime's planned 2010 elections. Initially, opposition groups vowed to boycott the election as they believed that no vote overseen by the military could be free and fair. But some dissidents have softened their positions in the belief that participating in a flawed election may be better than sitting it out entirely.

"There is the danger that the main political activists or stakeholders like the NLD and major ethnic groups will be sidelined" if they don't in some way participate in the election, says Thaung Htun, who the government-in-exile calls its representative to the United Nations. "We need to publicly propose an alternative."

Some analysts are skeptical that any new approaches from exiles will yield results. Dialogue requires participation on both sides, and the regime has given little indication in the past that it wants to negotiate, though some dissidents believe that may change if military leaders are given face-saving options that allow them to claim the 2010 election is legitimate. The regime rarely speaks to the foreign media, Western diplomats or high-ranking dissidents, making it difficult to divine its intentions.

Myanmar's myriad exile groups have struggled to reach consensus in the past and the latest discussions could easily break down over the details of how far to go with any national reconciliation plan. Many exiles still view any form of rapprochement as totally unacceptable and worry that any participation in the 2010 election could legitimize a military dictatorship.

"The Burmese are too divided to suddenly put all their history behind them," retired Rutgers University professor and Myanmar expert Josef Silverstein said.

The Jakarta conference was planned in part "to stay relevant to meet the criticism" that older dissident groups are too inflexible, says Sean Turnell, a Myanmar expert at Macquarie University in Sydney.

Dissidents are considering new approaches "probably because things are looking so dire" in the country, with little change in recent years, forcing exiles to look "for a new way," says Monique Skidmore, a Myanmar expert at the University of Canberra in Australia.

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