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The Burmese junta's diplomatic dance

By Andrew Harding
Asia correspondent, BBC News

Burma's leader, Senior General Than Shwe, in March 2007
The UN's envoy did not even get to meet Burma's most senior leader

Burma's senior generals must know the dance moves by heart.

Four steps back, then two steps forward. Call it the junta jive.

They have been sticking to the same negotiating routine for almost two decades now - shrugging aside each attempt by the international community to coax them into trying something a little more progressive.

So where does this week's visit to Burma by the UN's envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, fit into this ponderous dance floor diplomacy?

It is tempting - and usually safe - to assume the worst about Burma's inflexible rulers.

True, they did allow Mr Gambari to meet again with Aung San Suu Kyi.

They even let him deliver a statement on her behalf, and then agreed to let Burma's jailed democracy icon talk to members of her own National League for Democracy party, for the first time in three years.

They also released hundreds of recently detained protesters, quite possibly for Mr Gambari's benefit.

But consider what they did not do.

Burma's senior general, Than Shwe, declined to even meet Mr Gambari, and his government rejected a UN mediation strategy out of hand.

UN image of Aung San Suu Kyi and Ibrahim Gambari, 08/11
Ibrahim Gambari was able to meet Aung San Suu Kyi
It refused to cancel plans to expel the UN's local representative, Charles Petrie, for daring to state the obvious - namely that many Burmese families are struggling to make ends meet and that September's demonstrations were a reaction to this fact.

A government minister publicly rebuked Mr Gambari for failing to persuade the US to lift sanctions. And let's not even mention September's shocking violence, and the continuing detention of Suu Kyi, and many other peaceful activists.

Four steps back, two steps forward.

Buying time

Plenty of observers are convinced, with good reason, that Burma's military government is simply buying time, and hoping that international attention will drift elsewhere.

In the meantime, the authorities can push ahead with their own "seven-stage roadmap" to what they refer to as "discipline-flourishing democracy" - a slow, deeply controversial process, widely condemned as a sham, which is supposed to involve a referendum on a new rubber-stamped constitution, followed by elections.

The likely aim would be to cement the military's pre-eminence firmly and "democratically" into a new charter, which the government could then brandish at their critics abroad.

Aung San Suu Kyi must be well aware of these risks. Which is why this week's statement, reiterating her long-standing willingness to hold talks with the generals, included the key sentence: "I expect that this phase of preliminary consultations will conclude soon so that a meaningful and timebound dialogue with the SPDC leadership can start as early as possible."

In other words, what she meant was that the opposition was not going to let itself get bogged down in another meaningless charade: she was emphasising the need to agree fast to a water-tight formula for these negotiations, and a strict timetable.

New hope?

There is really no way of telling what will happen now.

Outside pressure may help. US "smart" financial sanctions against individuals and companies inside Burma are clearly rattling some people in government - particularly, diplomats say, middle-ranking officials.

Buddhist Monks protest in Rangoon on 24 September 2007
The strength of September's protests took everyone by surprise
But fast progress seems unlikely. And that is probably the key.

The idea that Burma's junta will conveniently collapse is simply not plausible - then again, no-one predicted the monks' uprising.

Any democratic transition is likely to require sustained international pressure - by no means guaranteed given the views of China, India and Russia - probably over many years.

Burma's generals are not the types to learn a new dance. Perhaps the best anyone can hope for is that, over time, they may at least be pushed into taking two steps back and three steps forward.

Here, to end with, are a couple of conflicting views of the way ahead. The first comes from a commentary in Burma's New Light of Myanmar newspaper - a government mouth-piece with a taste for North Korean-style rhetoric.

"The colonialist bloc and national traitor axe-handles instigated mass protests in September. Now... peace and stability has been restored... The government is building a peaceful, modern and developed democratic nation with flourishing discipline," it says.

"In this regard, it is implementing democratic transition processes through the state's seven-step road map. Nonetheless, internal and external saboteurs are trying to interfere in the internal affairs, while turning a blind eye to the fine traditions and positive results.

Burma's National Convention, where Burma's roadmap to democracy is discussed
Burma's "roadmap to democracy" is a long, tortuous process
"Therefore, the entire people have to make efforts hand in hand with the government to crush these destructive elements and to see to the state's seven-step road map. That is a solemn vow of the entire people."

And here is a very different perspective from the Thai-based Irrawaddy newspaper.

"When an average Burmese activist talks of democracy today, he or she does not simply refer to the replacement of an unelected regime by an elected one. They understand - from bitter experience - it is not so much about who wields state power but how and on whose behalf it is exercised," the paper says.

"That is why there is no one overarching Burmese pro-democracy movement but thousands of them walking, talking, fighting, declaring little republics of freedom wherever, whenever the opportunity arises.

"If there are no larger-than-life leaders at the head of the Burmese protests, it is because the men and women on the streets are learning to become leaders all on their own.

"And that is why those who are fixated on a quick end to this long-running saga can't see the birth of Burmese democracy. We can already hear the baby cry; its smile can't be far behind."


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