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Sen. Collins: Republicans and Democrats can agree on Myanmar (Burma)

In Myanmar (Burma) the tide of democracy is growing. But Aung San Suu Kyi rightly cautions foreign investors that the country still has no ‘rule of law.’ The US must continue to support those working to further human rights and civil society while carefully watching Burma's generals.

By Susan Collins / June 29, 2012

Myanmar's (Burma's) pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi arrives at Dublin Airport, Ireland June 18. On her trip to Burma, Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine 'found generals taking incremental steps toward reform and a society left to figure out for itself how to take advantage of the recent easing of repression.' Ms. Suu Kyi 'expressed...determination to use the reforms, regardless of the reasons behind them, to benefit her country.'

Julien Behal/PA Wire/AP

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Washington

Landing in Naw Pyi Daw, Myanmar's (Burma's) capital, last month, I realized that I had tumbled down the rabbit hole into an altered reality, but one that, unlike Alice’s, carried little wonder. 

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Our delegation arrived at a huge gleaming new airport, but ours was the only airplane there. I saw massive new buildings, each with perfectly manicured lawns tended by a small army of groundskeepers, but I saw no residents or other workers. I drove on 12-lane highways where I saw only a handful of cars. 

I saw several grand ministry buildings, parliament, and a gilded presidential palace, in a country where a third of the people live in poverty. And I met with a set of government leaders who each delivered the same set of talking points that have not progressed beyond this summer’s surprising initial reforms toward more freedom for the Burmese people. It was difficult to judge what was real and what was illusory.

I went to Burma in advance of a trip to the World Economic Forum in Bangkok May 30 - June 1, where I had been invited to speak on regional security in Southeast Asia. I went to meet with the country’s leadership, including the newly elected parliamentarian, Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, to discover if Burma’s tentative moves toward democracy were genuine and lasting or self-interested and reversible. I wanted to find out what effect these changes would have on civil society and to assess whether the leaders would continue to pursue reforms. 

What I found were Burmese generals, some now out of uniform, taking incremental steps toward reform and a society left to figure out for itself how to take advantage of the recent easing of repression.

In today’s US Senate, bipartisanship is increasingly rare. On America’s policy toward Burma, however, both the Obama administration and my own Republican party broadly agree. Both support democratic reforms and increased investment in human rights and economic development, but both believe that the relaxation of sanctions should be matched by demonstrable progress on the treatment of ethnic minorities, the release of more political prisoners, and the expansion of traditional democratic rights. 

That demand for real action is justified, because the limited reforms made on the ground thus far, while real, are not occurring out of a desire by all for democratic progress. Rather, the reforms must be divorced from a Western perspective that believes in the idea of selfless action and placed in the context of the environment in which they are occurring. 

Burma’s “reformist” generals, including the President Thein Sein, who has taken the tentative first steps toward reform, have systematically controlled the economy and access to Burma’s wealth of natural resources for a generation. They have used the political process to enhance their control at the expense of their own people, especially certain ethnic minorities who are not even considered to be citizens. 

Their rule has seen, if not permitted, an illicit trade in poppies and other goods, including human trafficking, across a porous border populated by disenfranchised minorities. 

When I met with him, Burma’s president, Mr. Thein Sein, avoided any real dialogue about the myriad of these issues facing his devastatingly poor nation. Instead, he calmly delivered a monologue on the threats he faces. To the president’s credit, he did initiate the reforms, which took courage.

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