Commentary Magazine


Burma’s Tricky Question

The beginning of this month was a week of firsts for Burma’s famed pro-democracy opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. She won a seat in parliamentary by-elections and, unlike after her party’s overwhelming victory in 1990 that was immediately nullified by the ruling junta, was granted her seat on May 1. She was then awarded her first passport in 24 years, which she will use to fulfill other firsts: she will address both chambers of the British parliament, and she will travel to Norway and deliver her Nobel acceptance speech. (She won the Peace Prize in 1991 but was put under house arrest.)

The European Union had already agreed to suspend its economic sanctions against Burma, and on Friday U.S. officials said they would suspend the prohibition against American investment in Burma. This is both a momentous decision and a risky one. As Reuters reports this morning:

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Myanmar democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi have discussed the need to protect against the country backsliding on reforms.

The U.S. on Friday said it would suspend a ban on American investment in the country also known as Burma. It was the Obama administration’s most significant step yet to reward Myanmar for its shift from five decades of authoritarian rule, although rights groups criticized the move as premature.

The State Department said Clinton called Suu Kyi on Sunday night, and that they agreed Myanmar’s progress remains fragile. Clinton said the U.S. was keeping its sanctions’ authorities in place as an insurance policy.

In March, I asked if Burma will be considered a sanctions success story. It’s too early to tell, of course, but if handled well the process could turn out to be a much-needed feather in the cap of sanctions enthusiasts. But there are three reasons not to rush the lifting of all sanctions.

First, there is no sanctions-related humanitarian crisis. I pointed out that leading economic indicators and conversations with officials had enabled Min Zin to make a convincing case that “it’s not western sanctions that are causing Burma’s economic woes. It’s government policy.” So while lifting the sanctions would certainly help Burma’s economy, it doesn’t necessarily need to be rushed.

Second, Aung San Suu Kyi’s freedom and election to parliament are powerful symbols–but, at this point, symbols nonetheless. As the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month:

Underscoring the continuing problems, Ms. Suu Kyi, 66-years-old, delayed taking her seat in parliament for several days despite her National League for Democracy winning 43 of 45 open seats in by-elections on April 1. She and her colleagues complained that the oath of office required them to swear to safeguard a military-drafted constitution which reserves a quarter of parliamentary seats for the armed forces.

In addition, changing the constitution requires at least 75 percent of the votes in parliament, effectively providing the army with a veto over any constitutional changes….

Ms. Suu Kyi is unlikely to have much of a voice in the legislature, at least for the time being. She and her fellow legislators from the National League for Democracy comprise around 8 percent of the total number of seats in the parliament.

Suu Kyi’s side backed down and joined parliament anyway. (Almost surely the right thing to do, rather than risk losing the momentum and goodwill of the moment.) It is not until the expected general elections in 2015 that the future of free elections in Burma will meet its next real test.

And third, both sides will want to do their best to ensure the cement dries on any democratization. There will be a strong impulse on the part of the Obama administration and Hillary Clinton-led State Department to explain away backsliding on the part of the Burmese regime in order to protect the legacy of the administration’s Burma policy. We all remember the countrywide collective cringe at Clinton’s assertion of evidence that Bashar al-Assad was a reformer just a year ago. And President Obama’s reaction to the 2009 Iranian “election” and ensuing protests was to just keep mumbling the word “dialogue” over and over to himself while ignoring the brutal reality playing out on live television in front of him.

For a “suspended” sanctions policy to have any teeth, the administration must be willing to admit if and when steps are taken in the wrong direction. To be sure, thus far the regime’s behavior has been worthy of its plaudits, and the process has been encouraging. A guarded optimism and a bit of patience may get Burma, eventually, to freedom.

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