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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.

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But in part, sanctions also forced his hand, and failure to move toward reform would have resulted in such a degree of diplomatic and economic isolation that Burma would either have collapsed under its own weight or become a paralyzed pariah, much like North Korea. Ironically, in order for the ruling class to preserve and extend its privileges of power, Burma had to change.

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Yet whatever the motivations of the generals, the tide of democracy is growing. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of committed Burmese citizens that want change and are willing to risk, quite literally, their lives for the prospect of reform. 

Later in my trip, while in Bangkok at the World Economic Forum, I sat down with the most famous of the Burmese activists, Aung San Suu Kyi, or “Mother,” as she is endearingly called by those that follow her. Her participation in the Forum was her first journey abroad after 15 years of house arrest and 24 years where she felt she would be prohibited from returning if she left the country. Literally closing the door to exclude her hundreds of admirers, we discussed her country’s future. 

Aung San Suu Kyi, who seems genuinely surprised at the attention given to her, expressed a deep wariness of those still in power. But she also expressed an equal determination to use the reforms, regardless of the reasons behind them, to benefit her country. Later, in front of an open forum, she cautioned those that would invest in her country, stating quite bluntly that the rule of law does not yet exist and that many of the protections to commerce and economic activity which exist in a modern democracy are simply still absent in Burma.

In other words, Burma is a bit like the Wild West, and companies may very well be on their own, a situation mirrored in civil society. 

In the old capitol of Rangoon, I sat down with a group of women involved in on-the-ground reform efforts affecting all Burmese. Among others, I spoke with the founder of a small start-up company employing those living with HIV who make bed nets to help prevent malaria. And I met with Zin Mar Aung, the winner of the International Women of Courage Award, who has founded four different civil society groups. These young women are the future of a Burma that will truly make lives better – if they are given a chance. 

Is this how a Burmese revolution happens? Not with the flash of guns or mass demonstrations in the streets, but rather with a group of activists committed to incremental change? It doesn’t grab the international spotlight, but ultimately, it may be more effective and, I hope, less violent. 

When the seeds of democracy grow in Burma, it benefits the United States. In order for those seeds to continue growing, we must continue to support the nascent reforms and assist those working to improve human rights, the rule of law, and civil society, even as we carefully watch the motivations of the generals and their next actions.

The recent riots and ethnic violence in western Burma clearly demonstrate the fragility of progress and the very real possibility that the generals could return to the repression of the last decades. President Thein Sein’s statements, in particular, underscore the necessity of using every tool at our disposal, including financial aid, sanctions, and US influence in the region, to keep pressure on the regime so that, like Alice, we do not end up in Wonderland again and again.

Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine is a ranking member of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

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