Cautious optimism expressed by Asian leaders at the weekend that the situation of isolated, benighted Myanmar is taking a turn for the better may prove to be more than the usual diplomatic doublespeak. Recent, relatively positive signals from the ruling military junta do not amount to a change of heart; the generals are not about to put up a sign saying “Dun Dictatin’” and retire to their jungle palaces, officials say. But out of darkness, a glimmer of light shows.

One hopeful indication came when Aung San Suu Kyi, the detained opposition leader, was temporarily released from house arrest to meet foreign diplomats and junta functionaries. The regime is also tentatively re-engaging with western governments, including the U.S., which is to send a high-level delegation soon. And last month, the Prime Minister, Thein Sein, promised the U.N. that presidential and legislative elections next year would be “free and fair.”

There are several reasons for the regime’s shifting stance, western observers say. One is that the junta has begun to recognise it needs the legitimacy that only a relatively transparent poll process can bring. Domestically, the creation of regional legislatures may help defuse ongoing, historically violent tensions with the country’s 16 ethnic groups; internationally, a respectable election could trigger an easing of sanctions and additional aid and investment.

Senior General Than Shwe, 76, head of the junta, is said to be hoping to stand down next year, for reasons of age and possible infirmity. He was committed to the regime’s so-called “road map” to democracy and felt he had done “a good job” in holding the country together, one analyst said. Now Than Shwe wanted to secure his legacy by regularising Myanmar’s relations with the west.

Another reason for taking advantage of Barack Obama’s willingness to reopen dialogue is said to be a desire to counter China’s growing influence. Harsh words from Beijing over the recent forced exodus of 30,000 mostly ethnic Chinese Burmese from Kokang into Yunnan province came as a sharp reminder that China, historically, was Myanmar’s No. 1 enemy, and its security and commercial interests do not necessarily coincide with Yangon’s.

But U.S. officials stress Mr. Obama is not offering the generals an easy option; sanctions would remain in place until there was a quantifiable improvement in the regime’s behaviour, the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, said last month. “We expect engagement with Myanmar to be a long, slow, painful and step-by-step process,” said her deputy, Kurt Campbell.

Scepticism that this apparent shift will lead to anything more than a sham election, decked out with democratic window-dressing to deflect western critics and hoodwink international opinion, is natural, given the junta’s record since it stole the 1990 polls. The evident risk for Mr. Obama, the U.N., and others is that they will be suckered into supporting the insupportable.

There’s no doubt the 2010 election project is highly problematic. Myanmar’s new constitution guarantees the continuing ascendancy of the military. New political candidates and parties will be vetted, Iran-style. Lack of free media, the absence of independent scrutiny, and intolerance of open debate do not sit well with the holding of “free and fair” polls.

And one deliberate side-effect may be the sidelining of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), the winners in 1990, whose ageing leadership now faces a cruel dilemma: either participate in the elections, thereby lending credibility to a possible political travesty, or hold back and risk irrelevance.

Any western policy aimed at bringing the generals in from the cold must be carefully calibrated to strengthen, not undermine, the legitimate aspirations of the Myanmarese people. Getting the balance wrong will risk prolonged darkness in a land where, as Kipling might have put it, it was the light that failed. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2009

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