The time is ripe to nudge Myanmar’s military leaders

The time is ripe to nudge Myanmar’s military leaders

LAST month, Myanmar’s pro-democracy icon, Aung San Suu Kyi, said she is still unconvinced that sanctions against her country should be lifted.

She did, however, concede that the Western-led economic embargo should be reviewed and that its effectiveness “is something to be decided after discussions”.

That represents a marginal reset by Suu Kyi, who asserted, in an interview a decade ago, that “sanctions are effective.... and they are not causing hardship to the people.”

She was wrong on both counts, just as she was wrong in convincing her party, the National League for Democracy, not to contest last November’s elections.

These were honest, calculated mistakes. The kind that all political leaders make from time to time.

Suu Kyi is, after all, a human being and despite what many of her starry-eyed acolytes think, she is not infallible and cannot walk on water.

Right now, it is tempting to say that her errors of judgement do not matter any more, nor does her current convoluted call for discussions about the efficacy of sanctions.

For it is now indisputable, after two decades of Western-led economic and political ostracism of Yangon, that the time for discussions is well and truly over.

Sanctions have proved utterly useless. All they have done is exacerbate the impoverishment and the suffering of the people of Myanmar.

Even United States President Barack Obama, an archetypal liberal democrat, has admitted that sanctions have not worked. In fact, ironically, they have helped keep the generals in power.

But saying these things, no matter how obvious and true they are, misses the point.

Because Western governments did not invoke sanctions to bring about regime change, but rather to appease domestic constituencies which were upset about the treatment of Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy.

Now that those constituencies have seen how ordinary Myanmar citizens have been hurt by the sanctions while the generals have profited, there has been a swing back towards common sense.

Today, most member states of the European Union, led by France and Germany, are lobbying to get the sanctions removed.

Myanmar dissident groups, as well as international human rights and pro-democracy bodies, have swung decisively against them.

Two weeks ago, ten Myanmar opposition parties urged the EU to end all economic sanctions because, they said, a post-election “political evolution” is already underway.

This opposition alliance, the Myanmar Fraternal Democratic Parties, lamented how sanctions prevent foreign investment from coming to their country.

A few days ago, the International Crisis Group also issued a report strongly criticising the sanctions policy.

The report began by robustly castigating the generals and their inept regime, and it disparaged last November’s unfair elections which the military’s Union Solidarity and Development Party won in a landslide.

But it went on to say that it would be wrong to conclude that nothing has changed in Myanmar since the elections.

For a start, the former regime’s top two leaders have stepped aside, and a new generation that includes technocrats has taken over.

So there is now a chance for the international community to nudge the new government in Naypyidaw to embrace more openness and reform.

But it can only be done if Suu Kyi and her Western backers recant their support for the failed policy of sanctions.

It is the only realistic way forward.

Two years ago in Cairo, Obama reiterated his belief that all people yearn for certain things.

These things are, said Obama: “The ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from people; the freedom to live as you choose.”

Regrettably, many people across Southeast Asia still wait for these things, but none do more so than the people of Myanmar.

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