Will the Generals prove gentlemen?

The guessing game goes on in Myanmar. However, says AMIT BARUAH, the recent visit of the U.N. envoy, Mr. Razali Ismail, has raised hopes that the dialogue between the Generals and Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi was back on track.

THE GUESSING game goes on in Myanmar. No one is quite sure where the talks between the military junta in Yangon and the National League for Democracy (NLD) leader, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, are headed. A recent four-day visit by the U.N. Secretary-General's special envoy, Mr. Razali Ismail, raised hopes that the dialogue between the Generals and Ms. Suu Kyi was back on track.

The talks between the NLD leader, who for all practical purposes remains under house arrest, and the junta began in October 2000, a revelation made by Mr. Razali, a Malaysian diplomat, in January this year. Since then there has been intense speculation about the trajectory of the talks, with several Western reports suggesting not so long ago that the dialogue was in tatters and that Mr. Razali's entry into Myanmar was being blocked.

Myanmar is a country which is partly hidden from public view and the military Government rarely gives direct information about events and developments taking place in Yangon. The hopeful sign in the dialogue, in fact, is that neither of the two parties - the NLD and the military - has said anything publicly to jeopardise the dialogue. The stakes for both parties are extremely high. And that's why neither of them wants to take the stage and make any pronouncements.

In a statement issued after the visit of Mr. Razali, the U.N. said the special envoy had visited Yangon to ``help facilitate progress in the talks between'' the Government and Ms. Suu Kyi ``for democratisation and national reconciliation in Myanmar''. ``During his visit, Mr. Razali had important discussions with Lieutenant-General Khin Nyunt, Secretary 1 of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), and other Government officials. He also had discussions with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi at the latter's residence,'' the statement said.

``The Secretary-General hopes that the visit of his special envoy, and the discussions he had during his stay in Yangon, will contribute towards progress in talks. He considers the timely visits of his special envoy to Myanmar as an important function in discharging his good offices mandate given by the General Assembly,'' it added.

If the U.N.'s tone was sober, a visiting U.S. diplomat to the region was more hopeful. ``It (the dialogue) has been going on for eight months... We expect to see a concrete result in a short while,'' Mr. Ralph Boyce, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, was quoted as saying in Bangkok.

The apparent reasons for the optimism displayed by Mr. Boyce were not made clear. Other analysts believe that a sign that the talks are going well would be the release of senior NLD cadres being detained by the military Government. The latest release of a couple of senior NLD cadres could be an indicator of forward movement in the talks.

The Bangkok-based All-Burma Students Democratic Front (ABSDF) took a diametrically opposed position to the views expressed by the visiting American official, stating that the progress in the last eight months of dialogue had been ``virtually non- existent''.``We ask the NLD and SPDC to open up the talks so the people of Burma (Myanmar) and the world can see if there is progress. The current talks are not open. People are frustrated waiting for information while human rights abuses and forced labour are still taking place in the country,'' an ABSDF spokesman was quoted as saying.

While Japan's decision to approve a $28.6 million loan to refurbish a hydel plant in Myanmar has been the subject of much speculation and worry in some international circles, Mr. Boyce made it clear that the U.S. did not see any conflict of purpose between Tokyo and Washington. ``We did not disagree... we have our own approach.''

In a new report, Amnesty International blasted the Myanmar regime for continuing to use ``forced'' labour. ``The military frequently forces men, women and children from ethnic minorities to carry heavy loads over tough terrain for days or weeks at a time to work on construction projects such as building railways, roads and dams. Hundreds have died from exhaustion and beatings,'' Amnesty claimed.

The human rights group called on the SPDC to implement a law enacted in October 2000 which banned forced labour. ``The SPDC must demonstrate the political will to implement the law. For as long as forced labour is allowed to go on, thousands of victims will continue to flee to Thailand in despair.''

Amnesty claimed that the junta was holding 1,850 political prisoners although 100 had been released recently. The group's report also quoted Myanmar's Permanent Representative in Geneva as saying: ``The Government has established a Steering Committee at the highest level, headed by Lt. Gen. Khin Nyunt... and a human rights committee headed by Colonel Tin Hlaing, Minister for Home Affairs. These bodies are carrying out preparatory work and will pave the way for the establishment, in due course, of a full-fledged institution on promotion and protection of human rights.''

Clearly, this recent statement from the Government is a major departure from the past. For its part, the international community, while watching developments in Myanmar, is keeping the pressure on the junta. The focus remains, as ever, on the dialogue between the Generals and Ms. Suu Kyi. All hopes for national reconciliation in Myanmar hinge on the results of these secret talks.