by Larry Jagan
(IPS) BANGKOK --
future of Burma pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi may depend on the outcome of a power struggle within the military which has detained the elected leader, allegedly for her own protection.
"There are assassins in the country," said Burma's Foreign Minister Win Aung, "and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is in custody for her own protection." No one has taken these allegations seriously, but there is a strong sense that the opposition leader's safety may in danger.
UN envoy Razali Ismail, who met Burmese leaders and Aung San Suu Kyi on his last visit, is also convinced that the military junta want to shield her from danger.
So for the time being at least, Suu Kyi remains in custody where she has been since the end of May following an attack on her motorcade and supporters by what U.S. diplomats have called a premeditated ambush by government-supported thugs.
"Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will be released in due course," Win Aung told his counterparts at the foreign ministers' meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Cambodia on Monday. "Don't press us to commit ourselves to a timeframe and date of releasing her," he said. "The important thing is that the will (to free her) is there."
Whether this happens -- and when -- largely depends on what is happening within the military hierarchy. For some time now, there has been growing evidence of a rift within the army's top ranks over what to do with Suu Kyi and whether to start direct talks with her.
The top military leader, Gen. Than Shwe, clearly felt that there was no need to negotiate with the opposition. The hardliners who share his view have led the campaign against Aung San Suu Kyi as she travelled around the countryside.
But not everyone within Burma's ruling military council -- the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) -- seems to share this approach.
The pragmatists -- believed to be centred around the military intelligence chief Gen Khin Nyunt -- were prepared to talk to Aung San Suu Kyi and to engage the international community on political and economic reform in the country. They are clearly embarrassed by what went on upcountry before she was detained.
"It is highly significant that General Than Shwe was out of town during most of Razali's visit," said an Asian diplomat in Rangoon. He reportedly went to a seaside resort shortly after the envoy's arrival and remained there until Razali left for Kuala Lumpur.
This has raised crucial questions about Than Shwe's position and authority. Diplomats are intrigued by the fact that for nearly two weeks after the May 30 attack against Suu Kyi, there was no coverage of the general in the state-run media. "This is more than curious as the media usually follows and documents his every move -- especially when he leaves the capital and when he returns," said a Rangoon-based diplomat.
In the past few days, the senior general is back on the front pages and television news -- perhaps signifying that Burma's senior leaders are resolving their differences. But doubts remain about whether there has been any major re-alignments with the top leadership.
"The are signs of a power struggle going on in Rangoon," said a retired senior Asian diplomat who has close ties with Burma but did not want to be identified. "There are few public manifestations of this. But in the next few months there is likely to be a major shakeup of the top brass -- similar to what happened some ten years ago when General Saw Maung was pushed out."
Many of these military leaders saw the start of the dialogue process as something that could guarantee the army a long-term role in the country's political future. Now they realize the process is falling apart, and with it, their grasp on power.
Military sources close to the Gen Than Shwe say he loathes Aung San Suu Kyi, and refuses to have her name mentioned in his vicinity. "The very mention of her name throws the senior general into a fit," said a senior Asian diplomat, adding that Asian leaders like Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi were advised not to mention her name during their meetings last year.
There certainly appears to have been an intense debate within Burma's military leadership -- possibly confined to the triumvirate of Than Shwe, Maung Aye and Khin Nyunt -- over whether to allow Razali access to Aung San Suu Kyi. In the end, Gen Maung Aye intervened and sanctioned the visit to the opposition leader.
"What is now clear is that General Maung Aye is exercising power -- even in the national reconciliation process, which he had kept well away from since it started," said a Rangoon-based western diplomat. "This may signal the turning point in the dialogue too."
In the past three years during his trips to Rangoon, Razali has not met Gen Maung Aye -- except when he met all three top leaders, at which occasions Khin Nyunt took the lead.
But the dialogue which Razali helped broker between the generals and the opposition leader is in trouble. Even UN officials associated with the envoy say "there is no real process at present."
Yet the latest crisis may provide an opportunity to get substantive talks started. It is now up to Burma's military rulers to make the first move. "They have to let her out if they want to continue with national reconciliation," said Razali. "You can't do it with one party locked up."
Two of Burma's top three generals have assured Razali this will happen soon. But "they must do something now to indicate that are serious about moving quickly to discussing things with her," he said, "a point I also made to them after meeting her."
In the space of two weeks the pendulum may have swung back in favour of the pragmatists -- those who want to talk to Suu Kyi and realize they must implement political and economic reform.
Suu Kyi is only likely to be released after the struggle within Burma's military leadership is resolved. That would certainly signal the start of a real political dialogue.
"Now there is a very real possibility of serious political talks starting sometime in the future," said a UN official. "But like everything in Burma, it is by no means certain -- it depends on developments in Rangoon."
June 16, 2003 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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