A U.S.-based Burmese activist known for his high-profile campaigns against the military regime in Rangoon–particularly the one that led Pepsi to pull out of Burma–has launched out in an unexpected direction with a secret trip to his homeland in June, during which he held talks with government officials, RFA's Burmese service reports.
"We should aim for the good development of the country. Our country might improve if we removed the regime. But we might also have a better country without removing the current regime"
Zar Ni, a key figure in the Washington-based Free Burma Coalition, confirmed to RFA recently that he had met with officials of the military regime, at a time of mounting tensions and apparent stalemate between Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) and the government.
He said his organization would publish a 50-page report on the situation in Burma in August to be circulated both in and outside Burma.
"If you are asking me whether we me with them [the regime], yes," Zar Ni told RFA reporter Min Zin. "Why? In the past 15 or 16 years, we have played zero-sum game aimed at the removal of the regime by using economic sanctions."
Zar Ni's trip has left the Burmese community in exile stunned and divided.
"We don¹t think that it is important whether we remove the regime or not. We should aim for the good development of the country. Our country might improve if we removed the regime. But we might also have a better country without removing the current regime," Zar Ni told RFA.
Long labeled by the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) as a hard-line opposition activist who was instrumental in bringing about economic sanctions against Rangoon, Zar Ni has raised considerable suspicions that his trip will be used by the military junta to create a crisis among Burmese in exile.
Asked about the impact of his trip on Burmese overseas, Zar Ni said: "It would be appropriate for all opposition activists to use their brains wisely and try not to get confused. I didn¹t do anything complicated. I did something simple. I tried to find a solution. I talked."
"If someone were to blame me, thinking that the regime will use me to create a crisis among exiled activists in the U.S., that would be narrow minded. They would be responsible for their lack of critical thinking," he said.
Zar Ni held meetings with Brigadier Gen. Than Tun, regime spokesman Col. Hla Min and Col. Tin Oo from Prime Minister General Khin Nyunt¹s office. But repeated requests to meet Aung San Suu Kyi, currently still under house arrest at her Rangoon home, and other NLD leaders met with refusal.
"We were told by the regime¹s officials that this is a time of complexity and tension one both sides and to wait for another opportunity to meet with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD," Zar Ni said.
He said that while top SPDC leaders seemed determined to cling onto power for their own personal wealth and status, there were some in government who appeared to want to do a better job of running the country while they were there.
"There were many more who were invited by the SPDC. The NLD also invited many, and so did [ethnic militant] cease-fire groups."
Zar Ni said Rangoon officials had also met Tun Kyaw Nyein, son of the late deputy prime minister U Kyaw Nyein, Aye Aye Thant, son of former UN Secretary General U Thant and many other key Burmese figures.
He said he was no longer convinced that economic sanctions were working, and were simply increasing hardship and tensions in Burmese society. Neither would talks between the junta and the NLD alone solve Burma's political crisis, as they would not be able to impose a top-down solution even if they reached agreement.
"This time, we realized that we could not act in a bigoted manner. We found that we all need to work together to solve the problems. We would not miss a stepmother more than our own mother. Nor can we expect Western countries and the United Nations to come and solve our problems," he said.
A U.S. State Department official told RFA that while U.S. officials had met with Zar Ni before his trip, U.S. policy towards Burma remained essentially unchanged.
"The United States considers sanctions against Burma to be a useful tool to encourage the regime to change its policy and release Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners, and to open the NLD offices and engage the democratic opposition in substantive dialogue leading to democracy and national reconciliation," the official said.
He said Zar Ni's visit was not made at Washington's request.
The SPDC held a national convention on constitutional reform in Rangoon in May, setting forth the principles that will form a new constitution. The junta threw out the old constitution in 1988 after they seized power following an NLD election victory.
The talks were the first stage of a seven-point "roadmap to democracy" unveiled last year, which the government claims will conclude with free elections in a country ruled by the military for four decades.
The NLD boycotted the convention after the junta refused to release Aung San Suu Kyi and her deputy Tin Oo, detained during a government-led attack on an NLD motorcade on May 30, 2003 in which at least 100 people died.