Myanmar offer is a 'sop' to the West

Bangkok - A rare offer by Myanmar's top general to meet Aung San Suu Kyi is an attempt to placate an increasingly irate international community and keep anti-junta demonstrators off the streets, analysts say.

State media reported the heavily conditional offer by junta head Than Shwe, an unusual move for someone said to despise the opposition leader he has kept under house arrest for most of the last 18 years.

Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, which won 1990 elections by a landslide but was never allowed to govern, said Friday she would consider the offer "in a positive light."

But analysts cautioned that it was not all it seemed.

"I think it is a very clear indication that they are under extreme international pressure and domestic pressure to make some change," said Win Min, a Myanmar analyst based in Thailand.

"They are very worried that the situation is going deteriorate, even if they can control the demonstrations temporarily."

But strict conditions were attached to the meeting, including that Aung San Suu Kyi stop urging her supporters to confront the regime and end her support for sanctions against the country also known as Burma.

"He gives conditions that will be difficult for Aung San Suu Kyi to agree," Win Min said. "It's good that he's making the offer," but not that there were conditions attached. "People are not sure if this is progress or not."

International condemnation of the junta has mounted since its used bullets and tear gas on peaceful demonstrators last week, killing at least 13 people, including monks.

Criticism came not only from longstanding opponents the United States and Europe, but also Myanmar's key allies India and China, with India making a rare appeal to the regime to free Aung San Suu Kyi.

Trevor Wilson, a former Australian ambassador to Myanmar, said the offer of talks was a smart move by the junta, which last week faced the biggest protests against its rule in nearly two decades.

Yangon's streets, which had filled with up to 100 000 demonstrators, are now largely deserted after a security crackdown.

"It's pragmatic of them because the very fact that they have meetings with her very occasionally gives the ordinary people a bit of hope and expectation that maybe they can reach a negotiated settlement, which many of the Burmese think would at this stage be the only way out," he said.

He said, however, that the statement had to be treated with suspicion, and questioned why the offer of talks had been aimed solely at Aung San Suu Kyi and not monks who led the protests, or other prominent activists.

"I think they elevate Aung San Suu Kyi in the scheme of the political dialogue, partly because they know she is the important symbol to the west... so it's a sop to the west," he said.

Wilson, a visiting fellow at the Australian National University, said the conditions would likely annoy Aung San Suu Kyi, but he thought it would be a mistake for her to flatly refuse.

"What we are looking for is something that will galvanise the whole political process," he said.

Also Friday, the top US diplomat in Myanmar travelled to the remote capital Naypyidaw for talks at the invitation of the junta - a move analysts said was unusual.

One western diplomat involved in high-level negotiations with Myanmar said the invitation could signal the junta was ready to enter a dialogue with the United States, its fiercest critic.

"But there's no reason for euphoria," he said. "It could be the first sign of weakness in the junta seen in years. It could also be to rattle the Americans."

Win Min said he believed the invitation was tied to the offer of talks with Aung San Suu Kyi.

The generals were keen to raise the issue of dropping sanctions with the Americans, he said, but added that such demands would likely be an unwelcome precondition to any negotiations.

"(Lifting sanctions) should be the result of the talks, rather than at the start of the talks," he said.

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