Like most things in Burma, news takes a while to seep out—even in the case of the historic meeting between President Thein Sein and the pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi in Naypyidaw recently. While the Nobel Peace Laureate declared herself happy with the outcome, she has revealed few details of their talks.
But some things are beginning to emerge which indicate that this meeting was far more significant that most analysts have so far suggested.
In Burma everything has to be gleaned for the appearances and formalities of the process, rather than for anything that is said. There were important public indicators that this meeting was highly significant—even if the first-ever meeting between the pro-democracy leader and the president was important in itself.
The two met privately—"four-eyes," as Asian diplomats like to call it—for a little over an hour. Few others have had that kind of access to the Burmese leader.
Atmospherics are always important, and both came out of the meeting relaxed and smiling. More importantly, a photo of General Aung San was hanging in the presidential palace in which they met. This was no accident, Burmese government officials have told me. It was purposely hung to show that the president regards Aung San Suu Kyi’s father as the founder of the country.
In the past decade, former ruling general Than Shwe has tried to obliterate his name and image. But Thein Sein has pointedly shown his respect for the independence hero."It was important to show the Lady that we are willing to work with her," said a government official close to the president.
But the other message was that she is seen as an important public figure, rather than as a politician or leader of the National League for Democracy. In the meeting, Thein Sein talked about the role she could play in the future, according to sources in Naypyidaw.
It was not a negotiation, but a trust-building meeting in which both leaders laid out some scenarios that could help the process of genuine reform and democracy take root. Thein Sein assured the pro-democracy leader that although her party is currently illegal, it would left alone and she would be free to travel wherever she wants.
Of course the issue of political prisoners was high on the agenda for the pro-democracy leader, who told her host that there could be no movement forward without their release first. Thein Sein knows that this is also the key to improved relations with the outside world—and even with their neighbours and supporters in ASEAN. It would certainly smooth the path to Burma being confirmed as ASEAN chairman for 2014 later this year.
Aung San Suu Kyi promised to consider making concessions too, though not necessarily as a quid pro quo. The two main compromises on the table are asking Washington to lift its ban on funding United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) operations in Burma and allowing UNDP to boost its presence in the country.
Secondly she is believed to have offered to approve the full entry of international financial institutions—the Asian Development Bank, the International Monetary Fund—into the country as an exception to the current sanctions policies of the West.
This would be very important, as it would help the government solve some of its economic priorities—getting training and expertise, allowing a significant transfer of know-how, building much-needed infrastructure, and reducing the country’s international isolation. But the key to this is the release of political prisoners, which remains a delicate and fraught matter.
Than Shwe has made it clear on at least two occasions—just after the elections last year and again earlier this year before Thein Sein took over the reins of government—that the release of political prisoners and jailed military intelligence officers was not an option. Both Thura Shwe Man and Maung Aye tried to convince him to make the gesture, but he remained entrenched. Of course, the recent motion to free political prisoners adopted by parliament by a large majority may have set the seal on the release of some them at least in the near future.
The most important thing to come out of the meeting may be the personal warmth that has developed between the two. There are several private matters that the two exchanged views on, according to sources in the Burmese government. Thein Sein has intervened to save the house in which Aung San and his family lived in Pymina, while he was leading the battle against the British.
It is run down and was about to be demolished. Thein Sein intervened recently to ensure the building is left standing and is reportedly paying for its refurbishment. Aung San Suu Kyi has reportedly sent the president an old photo of the house with her standing outside it when she was a very young child in appreciation for his actions.
So it seems certain that the meeting between the two was very successful and may have set the scene for significant changes in the future, including a role for Aung San Suu Kyi, though not in the recently formed peace committee. But whether the next big step is taken will depend on Thein Sein and the government releasing political prisoners, perhaps progressively.
If Thein Sein does move forward, the comedian Zarganar, the Shan leader Khun Htun Oo, and the 88 student leader Min Ko Naing must be in the first batch released.
Larry Jagan is a former BBC regional correspondent who is based in Bangkok and has extensively covered Burma issues.