Why Aung San Suu Kyi wants to keep sanctions on Burma

Some analysts warn that democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi’s pro-sanctions strategy may lose steam as Burma relies on its Asian neighbors for trade and investment.

Khin Maung Win/AP
Myanmar democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi (r.) greets members of her National League for Democracy (NLD) during a celebration to mark the 64th Union Day at its headquarters on Feb. 12, in Yangon, Myanmar. It was Suu Kyi's father, Gen. Aung San, the country's independence hero, who met with ethnic minority leader to sign the agreement that the holiday commemorates.

Three months after her release from house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi is back in the spotlight in Burma (Myanmar) over her support for Western sanctions, a stance that is increasing tensions between her political party and the military government.

Ms. Suu Kyi emerged as a democracy leader during a popular uprising in 1988 that was later put down by the military. She has long been a thorn in the side of Burma’s ruling generals, who held elections in November for a new parliament that is dominated by a junta-backed party.

In 2007, a monk-led protest movement in several cities sparked by rising fuel prices met a violent end. In an interview last week with Canada’s Globe and Mail, Suu Kyi praised Egypt’s Army for refusing to fire on crowds during recent protests there. But she said Burmese people were unlikely to take to the streets as in Egypt, for now, given their own Army’s willingness to crack down.

"But on the other hand, one cannot say that the Burmese Army is always going to shoot at the people,” she told the Globe and Mail.

Burma’s media have blocked all news about Egypt and other revolts, according to analysts and diplomats.

The row over sanctions

Since her release in November, Suu Kyi has focused on rebuilding her National League for Democracy (NLD) party and has made few public speeches. She hasn’t traveled outside Rangoon, the former capital, to meet supporters, but has said she wants to use new media to reach Burmese youths.

The row over sanctions comes as Burma takes its first steps toward constitutional rule after decades of military dictatorship. Critics say the transition is a sham that keeps the military in control. Other observers argue that new power centers are emerging and represent a form of partial democracy.

The US government is among those applying economic and political sanctions to Burma over its human rights record, though it also favors diplomatic engagement. The European Union, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia have also imposed strict curbs on trade and development assistance.

Last month, opposition parties in the parliament called for an end to sanctions as a way of easing the economic burden on Burma, which ranks among the poorest countries in Asia and yet receives a fraction of the international aid spent in countries like Laos and Cambodia.

In an internal review, the EU recently found that its sanctions had failed to achieve their political goals and had “undoubtedly contributed to the stagnation and continuing impoverishment of the people.” The EU review, which was obtained by the Monitor, also concluded that nonstatutory curbs on multilateral aid to Burma, such as World Bank loans, had primarily affected the rural poor.

But the NLD has argued that it was too soon to lift sanctions. In a Feb. 8 statement, it claimed that economic conditions had “not been affected by sanctions to any notable degree” and blamed the military for acute poverty and poor governance. It said it was ready for talks with Western governments on how the restrictions could eventually be modified with a view to improving human rights.

Suu Kyi's leverage?

Analysts say Suu Kyi sees sanctions as her political leverage in Burma, since the US and other governments take a lead from her stance. “She wants to show that she is modern and understands the needs of the country, but she doesn’t want to let go of the sanctions card,” says the Western diplomat.

Her supporters argue that the regime desperately wants to lift sanctions and had hoped that her release would trigger a change in Western policy. They say this explains why state media went on the offensive against the NLD when it stuck to its guns.

A Feb. 13 commentary that ran in several newspapers attacked the NLD’s pro-sanctions stance and warned of a “tragic end” for the party and its leader. In response, a US State Department spokesman said the regime “was up to its old tricks” by threatening Suu Kyi. However, one expert said the original Burmese-language expression used was less menacing and may have been taken out of context.

Some analysts warn that Suu Kyi’s strategy may lose steam as Burma relies on its Asian neighbors for trade and investment. China is building an oil and gas pipeline and is likely to invest in a new Thai-led industrial zone. By contrast, American and European companies have a limited presence in Burma and have been the target of campaigns by exiled Burmese groups allied to the NLD.

Thant Myint-U, a historian, said the government’s wish to see sanctions lifted must be set against Western demands for political reforms. “I think their default approach will be to try and make Western sanctions irrelevant, through expanding ties with China and the rest of the region,” he says.

Another longtime Burma watcher, who requested anonymity ahead of a scheduled visit there, said financial sanctions against regime members were more effective than blanket trade bans. He argued that the upheaval in the Middle East showed the dangers of doing business with such people.

“Going after the money of the leaders, tracking it, tracing it, sends the signal to potential business partners that their best interests aren’t served by their support or proximity to the regime,” he wrote by e-mail.

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