Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has completed her first major political trip outside the capital since being released from house arrest in May. Diplomats and analysts say this was a key test of the relatively new confidence building process with the military government.
Aung San Suu Kyi returned to Rangoon Sunday night after a 10-day trip to Burma's second largest city, Mandalay, and several other towns. This was her first political tour since being released from house arrest on May 6. The last time she tried to go to Mandalay in September 2000, she and her followers were arrested.
On this trip, not only did the military government refrain from interfering, but officials even invited her to visit several aid projects under development.
For her part, Aung San Suu Kyi refrained from making any anti-government statements. Aung Zaw, editor of The Irrawaddy magazine, said both sides are still going through a testing period as part of the process of confidence building. "I think the two are observing each other. Aung San Suu Kyi has to maintain low key political activities. She has to be very careful because the crowds who turn up to hear her speeches could turn out to be very rowdy, could turn into ugly scenes," he said.
Diplomats say they consider the Mandalay trip a successful, but limited, test of the reconciliation process between the ruling generals and the opposition NLD, or National League for Democracy.
That process began 18 months ago, when Burma's government, already under heavy Western sanctions, was again condemned for detaining Aung San Suu Kyi. The two sides began a series of closed-door talks under the guidance of a special U.N. envoy. As a result, the government released hundreds of political prisoners and toned down its rhetoric against Aung San Suu Kyi. But diplomats said there has been little movement on democratic reform or allowing the NLD some of the real political power it won the 1990 nullified general elections.
Editor Aung Zaw said the government gained a lot of good will from allowing Aung San Suu Kyi to make the trip, without having to give much in return.
"People are hoping that besides from the trip there will be more political engagement between the two sides. But so far that is not the case. So I think we have to wait a few more weeks or more months to see what signs of seriousness from the military government," he said.
For Aung San Suu Kyi, the Mandalay trip was a chance to assess the state of her party, decimated by 12 years of political repression. Many of the NLD members are now old or have left due to harassment.
Chaiyachoke Chulasiriwong, a politics professor at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, said the Mandalay is the first step in rebuilding the NLD. "By going to Mandalay she is making two test or two things at the same time. One is to assess the effect or result of the negotiations, and another thing is to reorganize the party," he said.
In the meantime, the international community is watching Burma closely to make sure the government abides by promises of full freedom for Aung San Suu Kyi.
The European Union, United States and Japan have all set tough conditions for any easing in trade and economic sanctions. Burma's generals are feeling the squeeze with trade deficits, hyperinflation, and a shortage of key goods.
Despite the economic pressure, Professor Chaiyachoke warns the military government, known as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), will want to see a payoff soon or it might abandon its conciliatory policy towards Aung San Suu Kyi. "In the end, the SPDC might feel that there's no way to get away from the sanctions except to go back to its own policy," he said.
Aung San Suu Kyi has backed Western sanctions and they have become important leverage in her precarious negotiating position with the government. She wants substantive talks on political issues before reconsidering her position on sanctions.
If real dialogue doesn't come soon, Aung San Suu Kyi will have little leverage and may have to resume her hard-line criticism of the government. That could bring the reconciliation process to end. So much will depend on how the government perceives its own position. How much power will it be willing to relinquish in exchange for economic benefit and how long can it maintain its grip on power if the economy falls to ruin?
Since Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest May 6, there have been no talks with the government and it is not clear when a next meeting might take place.