In Search of a Model for Myanmar

What effect are international sanctions having on Myanmar? In an effort to push the military regime in the former Burma toward democracy, many countries have restricted trade. But Amnesty International says the regime is tightening its crackdown on dissent.

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Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi marks her 60th birthday today. Suu Kyi is under house arrest in the center of Myanmar capital Yangon, formerly Rangoon. She's had huge moral support inside and outside Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma, but as Suu Kyi turns 60, some observers are changing their view and saying that her brave and uncompromising stand and her support of Western sanctions has had little impact on her country. NPR's Rob Gifford reports.

ROB GIFFORD reporting:

The facts about the military regime in Myanmar are clear: The military junta maintains its rule through policies of intimidation, rape, ethnic cleansing and oppression. Its corruption and economic policies have reduced the country to poverty. The facts about Aung San Suu Kyi are also little disputed. In 1990, her party, the National League for Democracy, won free and fair elections, but the junta expected to win. But the NLD was not allowed to take power, and she was detained. What's less clear now, though, 15 years after those elections, is what to do to move the situation forward. Some exiles, such as former pro-sanctions activist Zar Ni(ph), say it's time to rethink, and he's begun even to raise some difficult questions about Aung San Suu Kyi herself.

Mr. ZAR NI (Myanmar Exile): Has she been able to bring about better economic development? Has she been able to improve the welfare or well-being of our people? Has she been able to move the cause of democracy in any measurable way? My answer is no. What is needed to be done is to put the well-being of the Burmese people at the center of the policy debate and have Aung San Suu Kyi take the secondary role in this.

GIFFORD: Such suggestions are anathema to many in the exile community and Western support groups, but Zar Ni compares the debate in the West about Myanmar to the debate about Tibet. It has a widely admired peace-loving international icon in the Dalai Lama, but for all the Hollywood star power that's been mobilized, the outside pressure is, in the end, doing little, he says, to improve the situation for the people on the ground within either Myanmar or Tibet. Activists reject this argument and say that the problem is that sanctions have not yet been properly applied. The US only began imposing sanctions in 1997; the European Union has not imposed any at all. Jeremy Woodrum of the US Campaign for Burma says engagement does not work, and he points to the billions of dollars that flowed in during the 1990s as part of an effort to engage the military regime.

Mr. JEREMY WOODRUM (US Campaign for Burma): The regime took the opportunity to use that money to expand their military in Burma from 180,000 soldiers to over 400,000 soldiers. They undertook a campaign of ethnic cleansing in the Karen state, the Shan state and the Karenni state. To essentially conquer civilian populations within their own borders, they launched a massive crackdown on the democracy movement inside the country, imprisoning dozens of elected members of parliament from the democracy movement. The sort of argument that economic engagement would somehow benefit or help the Burmese people--in fact, the exact opposite happened.

GIFFORD: When you travel within the country, you constantly run up against the contradiction at the heart of the debate: People hate the regime; they love Aung San Suu Kyi as their symbol of hope. But they're also desperately poor, and many do not agree with the boycotts and sanctions which Suu Kyi herself supports, such as trying to dissuade tourists from visiting. One of the problems is to know what is the model for Myanmar. Desmond Tutu recently called for the world to make it the new South Africa, perceived to be the classic success for sanctions. Others, though, say sanctions have never worked, and point to Cuba as an example.

Today, on her 60th birthday, Aung San Suu Kyi is still under house arrest. She's received messages of support from world leaders such as George Bush and Kofi Annan. But David Steinberg, a longtime Burma watcher at Georgetown University, says too much of this is just feel-good politics from well-meaning people.

Mr. DAVID STEINBERG (Georgetown University): It is a cost-free, supposedly, policy that allows us to take the moral high ground. You can do it without expending any effort. It is not cost-free in the long run, either for the Burmese people or for US policy in the region.

GIFFORD: Steinberg says many people have lost their livelihoods in textile factories forced to close as Western corporations have pulled out. The problem with Myanmar is that activists point to even worse situations rising from the engagement of Western companies; for instance, the 500 villages that were cleared to make way for the pipeline of a Western oil company. And this is the dilemma: So far, neither engagement nor sanctions seem to have had much effect. The main trump card is still, perhaps, one 60-year-old woman under house arrest in the capital, but so far, Aung San Suu Kyi's uncompromising and much-admired stand has not brought the fruit of change that so many want so much. Rob Gifford, NPR News.

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