Opinion: West must not lift Burma sanctions too soon
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Opinion: West must not lift Burma sanctions too soon

Countries that wish to see democracy and a free market in Burma should not lift sanctions too soon.

Since nominally “civilian” President Thein Sein suspended the Myitsone Dam to much acclaim and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Burma late last year, the media spin by both Burmese language and Western publications that there is change in Burma has been relentless.  Reporters love to preface their interviews by feeding the interviewee “Now that there is change/reform in Burma –”

In fact, there has been no meaningful structural or institutional reform.  Naypyidaw, the new capital carved out of the jungle and paddy fields in 2005,  and the “parliament” remain largely an expensive “movie set” where audiences are given to foreign dignitaries who come to court.  Myitsone is only one of 10 dams in Northern Burma.

Aung San Suu Kyi herself said a few days ago, in Mandalay, “We are trying to get on the road to democracy.  We’re not on the road yet.”  At the very start of the process, she said, “There is the potential for change, but it has not changed yet.”

Since I and a few other voices are the only ones remaining skeptical, we think with reason, and our voices are all but drowned out by the sounds of the big media wheel, it behooves me to provide a summary and an update here.

Only now is the euphoria clearing up a little.

U.S. Special Envoy to Burma Derek Mitchell is in Burma from March 11-18.  In announcing the trip, State Department Spokesperson Victoria Nuland said about what has been done in Burma is, “so far so good.”  But she stressed the need for closer watching.

When  Suu Kyi announced she would participate in the April 1 by-elections, Aung Din of U.S. Campaign for Burma warned that once she becomes part of the system designed by the junta, as a Member of Parliament, she will be able to do nothing.  Recently she responded to rumors that she’d be given the posts of minister of health and education. She said, according to the rules (i.e.  rules set by the junta), if she becomes a minister, she would have to resign as MP.  She said she hasn’t been working so hard to become an MP and have a say, just to resign.

That’s just the point.  The whole “game’ has been elaborately rigged by the junta and players participate at their own considerable risk.  I am never able to blame Daw Suu, as at that time she had few options left.  My view is like that of long time NLD strategist, U Win Tin, who said, “Even if we don’t agree, we must support her.  We can’t appear to be divided.”

One commentator said, “Once she gives away sanctions, she will have played her only remaining trump card and have no cards left.”

See Adam Selene in the Irrawaddy, “How the game was lost.”

In an interview with VOA (Burmese) which I have translated (see Asian Correspondent) – Daw Suu’s first cousin whose father was assassinated in 1947 with Aung San on the same  July 19 morning, now P.M. of the NCGUB or Exile Government, pointed out that even if she wins all 48 seats allotted to her of a total of 250 or so, she will still be the minority.

The area she has been assigned, and you can be sure a lot of gerrymandering went into it, is tiny Kawhmu, an agricultural village near Rangoon.  I expect she was given this as the junta must have thought that her support would be highest in the educated, big urban areas.

However, Suu Kyi, with the savvy of someone to the manor born, has been campaigning all over the country.

When she was first released on Nov 13, 2011, she made her first visit outside Rangoon “on a pilgrimage” to Bagan (previously spelled Pagan) – with her “half-breed son” (to paraphrase J.K. Rowling).  Kim Aris showed his NLD colors tattooed on his arm right at Rangoon airport on first reuniting with his mother, and turned out to be as well loved and as charismatic.

Eleventh century Bagan is “where it all started” – where Yone Hlut Kyun or a small village called Place of the Hare’s Release (see Bob Hudson’s research on this) became the first Burmese empire of King Anawrahta, the first of the three great conquerors which are the junta’s role models, as iconized by the three “great king statues” in Naypyidaw’s parade ground.

This time Aung San Suu Kyi’s campaign trips are as well orchestrated also as Obama’s campaign in 2008.  She went slowly north right up to Kachin land in Myitkyina, where she had dinner with a veteran Kachin activist who had been her father’s (very young) contemporary in 1947, and remembered the promises of the Panlong Agreement.  She dressed in appropriate ethnic clothes in ethnic areas.  Then she “ended” this round with the biggest crowds in the junta-bureaucrat stronghold of Naypyidaw, where she courted civil servants.  “Civil servants are people just like you and me.  . .”

“You’ve heard of natural gas?  Do you know where the proceeds of these sales of natural gas go?”

“Don’t think you are just small and poor and can’t do anything.   Please remember always, there is only a nation because there are people.  If there are no people, there will be no nation.”

But the campaign trail has not been as smooth as it seems in the colorful videos taken by VOA and RFA correspondents.

Stadiums have been denied to her, so that she has been forced to give speeches in the blazing heat, and had to cut her first speech short because of the up to 104 degree Fahrenheit heat.


Today the temperature in Mandalay will be 93 degrees and will be 97 on the weekend.

In Mandalay she was sick, it could be from (heat) exhaustion, but said she was better the next day.  “Due to the good wishes and love of the people, I am quite well again.”

Her campaign continues to be assigned to large open spaces far away from town and city centers.  In Mandalay, there were large tree stumps and thorn bushes, which had to be cleared by bulldozers overnight.

Her supporters always manage to pull it off.

Japanese TV NHK reports that her entourage was shot at with sharpened bicycle spokes called jinglees, a word we first heard in 1988.  Also stones, according to Democratic Voice of Burma.

She complained to visiting Canadian Foreign Minister, John Baird, that electoral rolls are inaccurate, and include names of dead people.  The NLD’s complaints of signboards vandalized and other harassment, has been largely ignored.

I can’t say if this is due to a power struggle between Thein Sein and the so-called moderates on one hand, and the hardliners, including “retired” Sr. General Than Shwe.  Thein Sein has denied there’s an internal junta split, but he also said that the West should do their part now that his administration “has made all these changes.”  Last year even after the process started, he said there are no political prisoners.

U.S. Envoy Derek Mitchell will be accompanied by Special Representative for International Labor Affairs Barbara Shailor, who will meet with local labor representatives and will look into government-labor relations.  She needs to visit factories and other work sites.

Labor strikes continue, labor laws are weak, child labor prevalent (see video documentary, They call it Myanmar.) and the work conditions of most people dismal, with no legal channels for recourse.

There are tens of thousands of landless, former farmers forced to migrate to neighboring countries, especially Thailand.

Deputy Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Dan Bear will also accompany Mitchell, and will meet with former political prisoners.  Remember, there are still an estimated 1000 political prisoners still in jail.

I want to end with a quote from a commentator who calls himself “Kyansittha” in the Irrawaddy Magazine, March 9.

He derisively calls the 2008 constitution, The Nargis Constitution, as the referendum was pushed through a few days after the deadly cyclone which killed an estimated 200,000 to 2.4 million (initial UN estimate).

“USDP (Union Solidarity Development Party, the junta’s proxy party) still holds 350 seats, including 25% unelected (i.e. assigned) military personnel snoring in the whore house (parliament) .  .  . Dictators never give up power voluntarily.  Lifting sanctions after April Fool’s day elections would be akin to handling (sic) the IMF/WB/IDA all combined to Ali Than Shwe led thieves at Naypyidaw.”

General Electric is rumored to be entering Burma.  It is quite likely.  News reports say the current crunch on hotel rooms is not being caused by tourists but by NGOs and businesses, anxious to get a foot hold inside Burma.