updated 11/18/2007 3:01:53 PM ET 2007-11-18T20:01:53

The United Nations heaped praise on Myanmar’s military junta this week for allowing meetings with prominent political prisoners, and said that progress was being made in brokering discussions between the government and opposition.

But for knowledgeable observers, recent visits by U.N. envoys Ibrahim Gambari and Paulo Sergio Pinheiro have done little to change the reality on the ground two months after anti-government protests led by Buddhist monks were violently crushed.

The regime gave Pinheiro rare access to the infamous Insein Prison. But pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi remains under house arrest and substantive talks between her and the junta on the nation’s future remain a remote possibility.

“The fact that her status remains the same — a house prisoner with no freedom to move about, talk informally with anyone she wants, when she wants — suggests that nothing is happening of importance,” Josef Silverstein, a retired Rutgers University professor who has studied Myanmar for a half century, said in an e-mail interview.

“As long as she does not enjoy full freedom, she is in an inferior position and can’t influence what is happening in Burma,” Silverstein said.

Other critics said that the continued arrests of dissidents — three were detained Wednesday — also raised doubts about the government’s commitments to honor promises made to the U.N., including an end to political arrests.

“The conducive atmosphere is not established yet and we don’t really see the political will of the military regime,” said Naing Aung, who fled the 1988 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters and is now secretary general of the Thailand-based Forum for Democracy in Burma.

Opposition hopes U.N. diplomacy will bring change
The military has ruled Myanmar, also known as Burma, since 1962, crushing periodic rounds of dissent. It held elections in 1990 but refused to hand over power when Suu Kyi’s party won a landslide victory. Suu Kyi, the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has spent 12 of the last 18 years in government custody.

In the latest round of protest, the regime killed at least 15 protesters — diplomats have put the figures much higher — and detained nearly 3,000. The regime has since claimed that it has released most detainees, though many prominent activists remain in custody. Internet service has been restored, and a ban on assembly lifted.

The junta also agreed to allow Gambari into the country to promote talks between the junta and the pro-democracy movement. The visit resulted in the regime naming a minister in charge of relations with Suu Kyi and then allowing her to meet members of her National League for Democracy for the first time in more than three years.

The junta has nonetheless warned against interference in the country’s affairs. The generals rejected a U.N. proposal for three-way talks including Suu Kyi, and plan to expel the main U.N. representative in the country for criticizing the government.

Suu Kyi has little hope of seeing any change without U.N. diplomacy backed by sustained interest from China, Myanmar’s closest ally. She has told party members that she is “very optimistic” for the prospects of a U.N.-promoted reconciliation.

Trevor Wilson, a Myanmar expert at the Australian National University in Canberra, said the regime’s moves should be seen as positive but be followed by concrete steps.

“I think there needs to be further substantive discussion between the military regime and opposition,” Wilson said. “I’m sure that Aung Suu Kyi would see that as the next step.”

Other Myanmar watchers cautioned that the junta’s moves have to be seen against the background of the U.N.’s history of failure in the country — and the regime’s practice of making promises to coincide with key diplomatic meetings such as this week’s Association of Southeast Asian Nations annual summit in Singapore, where it is hoping to avoid a rebuke from the 10-country grouping.

Mood of optimism abroad
On Sunday, ASEAN rejected the U.S. Senate’s call to suspend Myanmar, saying the military-ruled country is part of the family and must be disciplined with dialogue. It also said it wanted to build on Gambari’s recent achievements.

A similar mood of optimism took hold during the tenure of the last U.N. envoy, Malaysian diplomat Razali Ismail. He managed to secure the release of Suu Kyi in 2002, and the regime declared “the era of confrontation is over.”

But a year later, Suu Kyi was put back under house arrest. In 2006 Razali resigned, frustrated at being barred from entering the country for nearly two years.

“Really, we are back where we started in 2003, when the junta re-arrested Suu Kyi for speaking to her party leaders about strategizing for democratic change,” said George Mason University professor John G. Dale in an e-mail interview. “No major concessions have been made yet.”

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