When Will Aung San Suu Kyi Really Tackle Sanctions?

Since her November release from house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi has been "talking and listening" to her followers in Burma. What she was hearing may have surprised her.
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Since her November release from house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi has been "talking and listening" to her followers in Burma.

Perhaps what she was hearing may have surprised her -- feelings in Burma have changed radically over the past decade, as young people desert the staid and dug-in National League of Democracy and its often intractable council of elders. She was forced to admit that sanctions are unpopular and considered a failure by a new generation of not only urban Burmese but also by millions in the countryside.

Sending a message to the World Economic Forum in Davos in late January, Daw Suu seemed to indicate that she had listened to those concerned with the NLD's hidebound intransigence about economic matters. (In last year's elections, many deserted the NLD to vote with the economically progressive National Democratic Front - a party formed by disenchanted NLD members. The NLD instructed its members to boycott the election.)

While not mentioning the word sanctions, she did urge economic involvement and investment in Burma:

"We need investments in technology and infrastructure. We need to counter and eventually eradicate widespread poverty by offering opportunities that will allow the entrepreneurial spirit of our people to be gainfully harnessed through micro lending programs. We have already missed so many opportunities because of political conflicts in our country over the last 50 years.... Despite an abundance of natural resources, Burma's development has lagged far behind its neighbors."

But then in February, Daw Suu quietly announced that she "recommends" maintaining Western sanctions on Burma, because sanctions affected the military regime and their cronies and not the broader population. The NLD has "carried out a study" into the impact of sanctions and will release the report this week.

It no doubt bitterly disappointed many millions of ordinary Burmese living in grinding poverty, unable to feed their families, educate their children or plan for the future. With no industry, commerce, trade or tourism, they are stuck in a vacuum of a stagnant economy that benefits only the military and their cronies.

Calling for responsible foreign investment in Burma is good economics. But a real economic and social commitment needs the abolition of sanctions. The junta still do big business -- oil and gas, teak and gems -- with the rest of Asia and still use the Euro and other world currencies. The generals and their cronies monopolize all those contracts so it would be simple to conclude that given they are doing well, they would only do better if sanctions were dropped.

But small business owners do exist in Burma -- mom and pop operations are the backbone of villages all around the country. If tourists are able to visit and stay in Burmese accommodation, eat at road side stalls, buy tchotkes from local vendors and ride in local taxis, a revolution -- even if it is minor -- would take place. And in the absence of travel being able to broaden Burmese minds, we could always hope it works in reverse.

Daw Suu has often underlined the need for her to be mindful of the duty she has to protect the interests Burma. This week, in a positive move, Daw Suu and the NLD formally dropped their 15-year opposition to tourists visiting Burma, saying that the money is needed and so is contact with the outside world.

But the United States does not appear to be listening to ordinary Burmese, instead, automatically rubber-stamping sanction extensions. On May 16, it renewed its economic sanctions against Burma, at the same time urging the government to quite stalling and offering excuses for shilly-shallying around on the edges of reform. "It is not enough to say, 'be patient, give us time.' There has been an enormous amount of time and substantial patience," Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asia, said.

The NLD has also announced a series of rallies -- many in the country side. My bet is that yet again, Daw Suu will have to admit that sanctions are deeply unpopular with the people she claims to represent. The question remains, what will she do about it?

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