Myanmar’s leaders hold talks with Suu Kyi
Myanmar’s junta Thursday broke its isolation of detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and held the first official talks since locking up the pro-democracy advocate more than 18 years ago.
The meeting was broadcast, without audio, by state-run television and showed Suu Kyi and the military regime’s labor minister, Aung Kyi, sitting in high-back chairs and having a discussion for more than an hour in a state guest house. Suu Kyi was not allowed to make a public statement.
The meeting was arranged after the shooting of peaceful protesters in Myanmar last month triggered international outrage and prompted the United Nations to send an envoy to urge reforms. The military government named Aung Kyi, a retired general, as its official liaison for dialogue with Suu Kyi.
The government says 10 people were killed in the crackdown, but human rights groups and Western governments contend that the death toll is higher.
Seen as a moderate and a problem-solver, Aung Kyi also has been the junta’s point man handling foreign complaints over the military’s alleged use of forced labor.
Suu Kyi, 62, held secret talks with the junta in October 2000, but the two sides failed to make significant progress.
She was freed from house arrest in May 2002, only to be arrested again a year later.
Suu Kyi was first detained without charge in July 1989, when the country was under martial law. The previous year, she had led hundreds of thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators when the procession at her mother’s funeral became an anti-junta march.
Thousands of peaceful protesters were killed in the 1988 protests. In 1990, Suu Kyi led her National League for Democracy to a landslide election victory while under house arrest. She won the Nobel Peace Prize the following year.
Thursday’s apparent move toward a new dialogue came just days before U.N. special envoy Ibrahim Gambari is due to return to Myanmar to press international demands for negotiations between the junta and pro-democracy leaders. The military has ruled Myanmar, also known as Burma, since 1962.
After Gambari met with junta leader senior Gen. Than Shwe on Oct. 2, state media reported that the military was prepared to hold direct talks with Suu Kyi if she dropped her demand for international sanctions.
But Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy insisted she would not accept any preconditions for a dialogue, and there was no public indication Thursday that her position had changed.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., recently warned Myanmar’s generals it was time to prepare for a transition of government, while conceding that the military would have “its role to play in the transition and post-transition.”
Some governments in the region have suggested the ruling generals could share power with a civilian government, just as they do behind the scenes in Indonesia, where the military dominates an elected government.
In a report Thursday, New York-based Human Rights Watch said that the army was recruiting children as young as 10 because of pressure to expand its ranks amid a high desertion rate.
“The brutality of Burma’s military government goes beyond its violent crackdown on peaceful protesters,” Jo Becker, the group’s children’s rights advocate, said in a statement. “Military recruiters are literally buying and selling children to fill the ranks of the Burmese armed forces.”
Targeting children at bus stations, markets and other public places, recruiters “often threaten them with arrest if they refuse to join the army. Some children are beaten until they agree to ‘volunteer,’ ” Human Rights Watch charged.
Child soldiers usually receive 18 weeks of training, and some are quickly sent into combat against ethnic insurgents, the report added.
“Those who attempt to escape or desert are beaten, forcibly re-recruited, or imprisoned,” the rights group said.
Myanmar’s junta summoned Suu Kyi after Russia and China, which both have veto power on the U.N. Security Council, repeated Wednesday that they do not support demands for sanctions against the military regime.
India, an important trading partner that borders Myanmar, joined Russia and China in calling the violent crackdown against pro-democracy activists an internal matter.
Instead, the junta and opposition should be urged to talk, foreign ministers of Russia, China and India told reporters following a meeting in Harbin, China.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei V. Lavrov warned that sanctions or threats risked “aggravating the situation and generating a new crisis,” and his Chinese counterpart, Yang Jiechi, added: “We hope that countries concerned will play a helping role instead of applying sanctions and applying pressure.”
Opposition to sanctions is also strong among some of Myanmar’s closest neighbors in the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations, which account for the overwhelming majority of trade with Myanmar.
The U.S. and European Union recently strengthened sanctions against the military regime. But human rights activists say they are still not tough enough, in part because they do not target foreign companies tapping lucrative oil and natural gas fields there.
The generals profit directly from energy deals with companies that include California-based Unocal, a subsidiary of Chevron.
Natural gas accounted for half of Myanmar’s exports last year, according to Human Rights Watch.