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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story



Members of the regime often say that you may disagree with much of what we do, but there is never any acknowledgement of the good things we do.

"Well, wouldn't you have thought that the ASEAN countries acknowledge it more than enough? To make up for whoever it is who do not. A lot of the ASEAN countries talk about the ceasefire agreements, and they also talk about the so-called economic boom - but they've stopped talking about that now, although two or three years ago they were talking about the hotels, the cars and the roads and so on. So what does the regime mean by saying nobody talks about it? People talked about it a lot. But they've stopped talking about it, because you can't go on talking about the hotels when the hotels are empty. And you can't go on talking about the roads when the roads are empty of the expected new traffic. You can't go on talking about them again and again. How often do we expect people to go on talking about bridges and roads and hotels?"

But they feel that it would be nice if the West, which has led the move to sanctions and pretty relentlessly criticizes them, would occasionally acknowledge that they have done something that benefitted the people. It might be a gesture that might bring a response.

"The West would be least inclined to be impressed by hotels and roads and bridges."

Why? This is more than a lot of developing countries do.

"I don't think the West would be impressed by hotels. The tourists might be pleased with them. Bridges, yes. I'm not sure that bridges are really considered that impressive any more."

The regime feels that this begrudging attitude towards them makes them feel that if they do something positive, if they move towards you in a conciliatory gesture or whatever, that all they will get is to be ignored or rebuffed.

"But what sort of gesture have they ever made?"

They spoke to some of your people two or three years ago, they allowed you to have your Congress last year, but each time they do this the ante is raised and they are expected to do something else.

"Oh, no, when we were allowed to have the Congress, we were very very loud with our words of appreciation. Yes, we said we appreciated the fact that we were able to hold the Congress. So it's not true. Every time they made a gesture we acknowledged it - but to the degree of the importance of the gesture. Not more than that. But it didn't mean that after acknowledging the gesture then we sat back and did nothing. Because we went ahead with our work. But we certainly said that we appreciated it very much. I said it myself so I should know."

The ASEAN policy of constructive engagement is one which you feel is not really succeeding?

"It hasn't succeeded. What has it done? When ASEAN was considering Burma as a permanent member a couple of years ago, we made two points. One was that admitting Burma as a member would make the regime more repressive, because they would think that their policies have been endorsed. They would see it as a seal of approval. Or, at least, if it was not a seal of approval it was a sign that the ASEAN countries didn't mind about the human rights record of the military regime. And the second thing we said was that Burma under this military regime was not going to be an asset to the organization. And I think we can claim that both these views have been vindicated."

They are more repressive since joining ASEAN?

"Oh, they have got much much more repressive since they became a full member of ASEAN. And I don't think that really Burma is much of a credit to ASEAN these days. It's not exactly a shining example for them."

The US espouses constructive engagement on China but not on Myanmar. This inconsistency puzzles many people, even Western diplomats. How do you explain it?

"I think the situation in China is different. And surprising as it may sound to some people, we think that Chinese dissidents have a much better deal than we have. In China, even when I was under house arrest, I would listen to the radio and I would be surprised by the fact that families of dissidents could talk to foreign correspondents and express their concern about their husbands and fathers and they would not be arrested. They would have these interviews quite freely. And I think the Chinese are quite sensible about give and take as regards dissidents. And with give and take with the Western democracies. The military regime here is far more intransigent and that's why I think one can say that constructive engagement with China bears more results than constructive engagement with Burma. I don't see any sort of give and take with regards to human rights taking place here - either between Burma and the Western democracies, or between Burma and the ASEAN countries."

Has there been any give on the other side?

"Yes. But no give on the side of the regime. This is what we say ad nauseum as well, that the regime does not want give and take, but they take all and we give all. But that's not what you mean by give and take. It's meant to be a bit of both on both sides."

Talking about how they treat you, Dr Mathahir once said it's not as if you are being strung up.

"Well, that's right. Again that's his personal opinion. And it's not one with which we agree."

If you came to power you would not feel uncomfortable with such ASEAN leaders?

"No, you don't. Politics is not like that."

You feel the US is giving you adequate support?

"Yes, I think they support us very very staunchly. And so do other democracies, particularly the Scandinavian countries. And the EU."

The regime worries that if you come to power you might seek retribution of some sort.

"We have always said that we are not interested in vengeance. That's our official policy."

Your principle goal is the welfare of the people, not yourself or your party?

"Well, the welfare of the people, yes. I mean, what I need for my own welfare I'd be better off not doing politics. If I were just concerned for my own welfare."

If your principle interest is the people of your country, why don't you step aside and let someone else deal with representatives of the government in a dialogue - given that the regime says it will talk to anyone in your party but you.

"But that's just an excuse. They have made a lot of misleading statements about dialogue. And they have shown a lack of sincerity with regard to dialogue."

You feel that even if you agreed to this they would not engage in substantive dialogue?

"No, no. They are not engaging in dialogue because they don't want to, because they don't want to give up power. It's not because there's any real reason for not engaging in dialogue."

Why not give it another try and say you will send someone else?

"We have said that we would agree to lower level negotiations which would not involve me."

You have?

"Yes. Actually, we agreed to that in 1997 when it was put to us through a third party. And when we agreed, they didn't come back on it, so we knew that they were not sincere. It's just an excuse. They are always coming up with new excuses."

But your party has put out statements saying that the regime should not demand that you not be present, that they choose their representatives to dialogue and you choose yours.

"Right, that's true. Of course, we've always said that what we want is genuine political dialogue not a dictated set showpiece."

But your choice is that you should represent your party?

"We have not said who we are going to choose. But we said we'll choose our own representatives. They can't dictate to us. Then will they let us dictate to them whom they choose as their representatives? How would you call it genuine political dialogue if each side does not have the right to determine its own representatives. If one side is going to dictate terms under which the other side participates in the negotiations that's not really negotiations at all."

What is wrong with taking that step?

"What step? That we allow them to decide on the representatives from our side?

Yes, if it's for the good of the people, if it might resolve the impasse.

"Well, how would you call this in terms of equality?

It's not equal, but does it matter if it gets the process moving?

"But then that's not genuine political dialogue. And would you not say that what we need is genuine political dialogue?"

Of course, but they may be genuine - it's just that they don't like dealing with you.

"Well, if they didn't like dealing with me, why didn't they have a dialogue with our party chairman U Aung Shwe when I was under house arrest for six years and he asked for it so many times over and over again. It was after I was released from house arrest they brought out this excuse that they didn't want to talk to me, that's why they were not having negotiations. But when I was under house arrest, U Aung Shwe actually asked to talk to them and at one point he was not even asking them for broad political negotiations, he was simply asking to discuss with them the working procedures of the National Convention - because it was so undemocratic. And they refused to talk to him. So if what they wanted was dialogue without me, they had six years in which to do it."



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