News / Asia

Burmese Government Reaches Out to Critics

Burma's democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and President Thein Sein pose for photos before their meeting at the presidential office in Naypyitaw, August 19, 2011
Burma's democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and President Thein Sein pose for photos before their meeting at the presidential office in Naypyitaw, August 19, 2011
Ron Corben

Burma’s opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, says she had a positive first meeting last week with President Thein Sein. The meeting is one of several initiatives the Burmese government is undertaking to reach out to its critics. While the international community has welcomed the outreach, there is skepticism over whether the government will follow-up with substantive action.

Aung San Suu Kyi debriefing

Aung San Suu Kyi met with supporters of the National League for Democracy to discuss her talks with officials in the capital, Naypyidaw.

While Suu Kyi released few substantive details about her conversations, she said her meeting with the president was an opportunity for both to put aside their differences for the sake of the common interests of the Burmese people.

She said the two had positive discussions that were candid and frank.  Burmese state media said both sides had sought to find common ground to cooperate.

But human-rights advocates in Thailand remain skeptical.  Bo Kyi, the joint secretary for the prisoner advocacy group the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), says a key sign to progress would be the release of what human-rights groups estimate are 2,000 political prisoners.  

“Just only a meeting," said Bo Kyi, "is not enough; I did not see any sign for the release of all political prisoners, and human-rights violations is still widespread, and of course human-rights violations are all across Burma.”

Analysts say the talks mark a key step towards reconciliation between pro-democracy supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi and the military backed government.  The new, nominally civilian, government was elected last year in a vote that outside nations have called a sham aimed at keeping the military in power.

Human rights

The spokesperson for rights group Alternative ASEAN Network, Debbie Stothard, says the government hopes to gain international support in its bid to host Association of South East Asian Nations meetings in 2014 and to ease economic sanctions over its human-rights record.

“The regime has been on a high-gear charm offensive because they want to prevent the United Nations from starting a commission into war crimes and crimes against humanity in Burma," she said. "They want to secure the chair of ASEAN for 2014 and they are working very hard to remove economic sanctions.”

ASEAN members have pressed the United States and Europe to lift economic sanctions against Burma, saying the country was making progress in political reforms during the past year.

Part of the effort to assess the new government’s progress on political reforms and human-rights issues is occurring this week, with the five-day visit of U.N. human-rights envoy Tomas Ojea Quintana. This is the first time in 18 months the government has granted him permission to visit.

He is to meet with government officials, as well as Aung San Suu Kyi.

Prisoner-rights advocate Bo Kyi says Quintana should call for several changes to improve the human-rights situation in Burma, including an independent judiciary.

Independent judiciary

“It is very difficult to see the positive changes of the Quintana visit.  What he can do is to make a suggestion to the Burmese military regime to do something," said Bo Kyi. "If the Burmese government follows his recommendation we can see something positive - especially Mr. Quintana will make his suggestion to the Burmese regime to release all political prisoners to change the judiciary system because there is no independent judiciary system in Burma.”

Quintana is expected to discuss his preliminary observations at a news conference Thursday in Rangoon.

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