Myanmar's Pro-Democracy Leader 'Optimistic' Over Prospects for Dialogue

Detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi said she believes Myanmar's ruling junta has the will to end the country's decades-long political crisis, as she met senior members of her party for the first time since 2004.

Suu Kyi told her colleagues that she is "very optimistic" about the prospects of holding a dialogue with the junta, said Nyan Win, a spokesman for her National League for Democracy party.

Taking advantage of an opening fostered by the mediation of a U.N. envoy, Suu Kyi met for an hour with three top executives of her party, as well as with the government's "minister for relations" who serves as a liaison officer to her.

Suu Kyi looked "fit, well and energetic like before. She is full of ideas," said Nyan Win, who also attended the hour-long meeting at a government guest house. Suu Kyi was brought there from her home nearby where she is kept under house arrest.

Their meeting, from which public and press were kept well away, was permitted by the government after U.N. special envoy Ibrahim Gambari on Thursday completed a six-day visit to Myanmar to promote a dialogue between the ruling junta and Suu Kyi.

Suu Kyi already signaled her willingness to follow Gambari's initiative in a statement released Thursday night after the departure of the U.N. envoy, who met her for an hour just before leaving.

"In the interest of the nation, I stand ready to cooperate with the government in order to make this process of dialogue a success," Suu Kyi said in her statement, which Gambari read aloud in Singapore.

Her statement also prodded the junta, officially known as the State Peace and Development Council, to move more quickly in dealing with her.

She said she hoped that the preliminary consultations with minister for relations Aung Kyi could be concluded soon "so that a meaningful and time-bound dialogue with the SPDC leadership can start as early as possible."

To her colleagues, she also suggested that the junta could make a healing gesture after September's unrest by releasing political prisoners.

Appearing to concede that she will remain detained for the immediate future, she told her colleagues that she will ask for two liaison officers of her choice to help her communicate with them. She said she will also ask Aung Kyi to make arrangements so that she can see the other party leaders whenever necessary.

Suu Kyi has been in government detention for 12 of the past 18 years, and continuously since May 2003.

The government says 10 people were killed in the Sept. 26-27 crackdown on pro-democracy protests, though diplomats and dissidents say the death toll was much higher. Thousands were arrested, with the events triggering intense global condemnation.

The roots of Myanmar's crisis are in the military's refusal to hand over power after Suu Kyi's party won a 1990 general election. The junta now says it is following a seven-step "road map" to democracy that is supposed to culminate in free elections, though it has not set a time line for the process.

Myanmar experts were cautious about the prospects for reconciliation. A previous U.N.-initiated dialogue in 2002-2003, begun when Suu Kyi was serving an earlier term of house arrest, withered without making any headway.

Unless Suu Kyi makes some concessions to the government, further progress is unlikely, said Robert Taylor, a London-based Myanmar scholar.

"The SPDC has tried twice before to do a deal with her. Twice the agreements they started unraveled. I doubt if they will move unless she makes the first significant step," he wrote in an e-mail interview.

"My reaction is extreme skepticism that this will lead to real dialogue between her and the (junta), or genuine political change," said Donald M. Seekins of Japan's Meio University in Japan. "The (government) likes to move Suu Kyi and the NLD around like pieces on a chessboard, to satisfy the international community."

The regime, which is notoriously thin-skinned about foreign criticism, also faces further scrutiny about its human rights record.

The U.N.'s special investigator for human rights in Myanmar, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, has been invited for five-day visit starting Sunday.

Ahead of his visit, the London-based human rights group Amnesty International issued a call for the junta to cooperate with his mission.

"Widespread arbitrary detentions, hostage taking, beatings and torture in custody and enforced disappearances clearly disprove any claims from the Myanmar Government of returning normality," Catherine Baber, Amnesty International's Asia-Pacific program director, said in a press release.