One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

14 October 2014

Source: ASEAN Focus Group (Australia)
Source type: Others
Published on: 24 Aug 2006

Hope for some political progress in Myanmar arose in April when the regime invited the National League for Democracy (NLD) to participate in the revived Constitutional Convention beginning on 17 May, and rumours that Aung San Suu Kyi might soon be released circulated. Two of the four detained NLD executive committee members (Chairman Aung Shwe and Secretary U Lwin) were released on 13 April, but Aung San Suu Kyi (Secretary General) and Tin Oo (Vice Chairman) remained under house arrest. The nine members of the NLD Executive, including Tin Oo who was escorted from his house arrest, were subsequently allowed to meet Aung San Suu Kyi on several occasions in April and May to discuss their approach to the convention. In another minor concession the government permitted the reopening of the NLD's main office in Yangon, and the reconnection of its telephones, though other NLD offices around the country remained closed. However, the NLD announced on 14 May that it would boycott the constitutional convention, because the government had not released Aung San Suu Kyi and Tin Oo; had not agreed to treat the six objectives and 104 principles prescribed for the constitution as suggestions rather than binding principles; and had not allowed other NLD offices to reopen. Several ethnic groups represented in the United Nationalities Alliance, including the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, the second largest opposition party, also declined to attend. The government has already reacted to the NLD's decision by cutting off the phones to the NLD office once again, and party members fear a new crackdown is imminent.

In another negative development, the government asked the Thai government to postpone the next round of the 'Bangkok Process' talks on political change originally scheduled for late April, ostensibly because of its preoccupation with the convention, though it claimed still to support the process.

Aung San Suu Kyi's continued detention is also blocking Myanmar's participation in the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM). At a meeting of ASEM Foreign Ministers in Ireland in April, EU members made Myanmar's membership conditional on her release and the participation of the NLD and ethnic minorities in the constitutional convention, though they were prepared to consider admitting Cambodia and Laos (the other ASEAN members not so far included). In return ASEAN threatened to oppose the inclusion of the ten new EU members in the ASEM summit in Hanoi in October.

Because of the continuing stalemate in Myanmar, there is no prospect of a relaxation of Western sanctions. The US Congress is about to renew US sanctions, and would like the Administration to persuade its allies to impose tighter trade sanctions. The EU is renewing its measures against Myanmar, though stopping short of a full trade boycott. Such moves will not however be fully effective while Myanmar's neighbours like China, India and Thailand decline to follow suit.

WATCHPOINT: Can the convention produce any meaningful progress along the road map without the participation of the NLD and other opposition groups?

Frank Milne

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