“These days I am coming across what I call reckless optimism,” she said. “A little bit of healthy skepticism is in order.”
In the absence of robust democratic institutions, including rule of law and an independent judiciary, the reform process would remain vulnerable to political shifts in the armed forces, the Nobel laureate told the World Economic Forum on East Asia.
Further reforms “depend on how committed the military is to the process.”
“I recognize that the president is not the only man in government,” she said, affirming her trust in President Thein Sein’s commitment to political reform. But, she cautioned, “I cannot say we have achieved all the basics of a democratic society.”
Suu Kyi’s concerns about the fragility and limitations of the reform process are echoed in a new report from the international human rights group Amnesty International.
Despite the recent release of political prisoners, hundreds of dissidents remain behind bars, the group complains, although a lack of government transparency means that the exact number is not known.
“Most political prisoners in Myanmar have been sentenced under laws that place the country well outside of international norms and standards on the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly, and association,” the report notes. “Legal reform in Myanmar is long overdue. This is actually underway and has yielded some positive results.”
The Amnesty report also highlights growing concerns that lack of capacity is retarding the reform process.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day,” it notes. “To the extent that the only thing less desirable than a lack of legal reform is legal reform poorly done, this reminder is well-received.”
“Different time frames are clearly warranted for delivering a prisoner review mechanism, accountability for human rights abuses, and full realization of social, economic, and cultural rights” would be facilitated by improvements in capacity and the creation of a “human rights infrastructure”.
Calling for international investment in an economy devastated by the military’s crony capitalism and economic sanctions, Suu Kyi told the WEF meeting in Bangkok that companies should take a socially responsible approach by empowering civic society and creating jobs to help defuse the “time bomb” of high unemployment.
“For a moment please don’t think too much of the benefit investment will bring to investors,” Suu Kyi said. “We don’t want investment to mean further corruption… and greater inequality.”
She cautioned business leaders that “even the best investment law would be of no use whatsoever if there is no court clean enough and independent enough to be able to administer these laws justly.”
“Good laws already exist in Burma but we do not have a clean and independent judicial system. Unless we have such a system it is no use having the best laws in the world.”
Another Nobel laureate – for economics – thought Suu Kyi’s comments were unduly bleak.
‘‘I thought she was excessively pessimistic,’’ said Joseph E. Stiglitz, a professor of economics at New York’s Columbia University who has advised the government during the transition from military rule.
Mr. Stiglitz said that despite ‘‘uncertainties’’ and a weak judicial system, foreign investors could expect good returns. He compared Myanmar to China. The rule of law is very weak in China yet the country has grown at an impressive pace for the last three decades and foreign investors have profited, he said.
In Myanmar, ‘‘there is a commitment on the part of the current government to try to attract investment,’’ Mr. Stiglitz said. ‘‘That commitment implies it will be sensitive to the concerns of investors.’’
But the new Amnesty report concurs with Suu Kyi’s concern over the social and environmental impact of foreign investment, especially with respect to the rights of farmers, fisherfolk and workers in rapidly-diminishing forests.
“While two-thirds of Myanmar’s people earn their livelihood in these areas, two new land laws, for example, reportedly afford very little protection of their rights. There is no access to the court system, and customary rights to land are no longer taken into account when determining land registration and title,” the report states.
The opposition National League for Democracy will prioritize reform and implementation of existing laws rather than initiating new legal provisions, Suu Kyi told the Irrawaddy, a leading news outlet.
“We could end up with too many new laws too quickly,” she said. “It might be difficult to digest a rush of new laws.”
“For example the licensing laws in various sectors could be changed,” she said, mentioning telecommunications, where existing regulations mean that most ordinary Burmese, who live on around US $1-2 per day, cannot afford a mobile phone.
The NLD leader, recently elected to Burma’s parliament in a recent by-election, also expressed anxiety about the country becoming a site for geo-political rivalry.
“I’m always very concerned when Burma is seen as a battling ground for the United States and China,” she told a press conference.
Suu Kyi’s next major speech on her current international tour will be before the International Labor Organization in Geneva.
The ILO is expected to moderate its criticism of forced labor practices in Burma, “despite fresh reports that the military continues to target the stateless Rohingya population in Northern Arakan state with impunity,” Democratic Voice of Burma reports.
“In general terms for all parts of the country, we have heard consistent reports that there has been a general reduction in the use of forced labor,” said Steve Marshall, head of the ILO office in Rangoon. “The committee will probably come to a similar conclusion.”
The ILO’s assessment “is seen as a crucial indicator for the reduction of further international sanctions,” DVB notes:
However, a report by the Arakan Project released yesterday documents systematic abuses carried out by the Burmese military towards the Rohingya minority group in Northern Arakan State between November 2011 and May 2012.
The group warns that there has been “little progress” since the Burmese government signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the ILO in March this year. While a reduction in the use of forced labor has been seen in certain townships of Northern Arakan state, it is has been coupled with a rise in arbitrary taxes and increased exploitation in other areas.
“Villagers continue to receive regular orders to work on road construction, in NaSaKa (border security forces) and Army camps, as sentries and porters, without remuneration and facing penalties if they do not comply, as in past years,” warned the report.
“We have never received any wages, not even a cup of tea, from the Army or the NaSaKa for all the work we do for them year after year. Instead, we are insulted and harassed if we do not work properly,” a 21-year-old Rohingya farm laborer from Buthidaung Township told the Arakan Project.
Suu Kyi’s commitment to improving labor standards and workers’ rights was evident in her address to a throng of thousands of Burmese migrant workers in Thailand this week.
“Today, I will make you one promise,” she said. “I will try my best for you.”
Migrant workers are a vital source of remittances estimated in 2007 to be worth an estimated $300 million or 5% of the Burma’s total economic output, but “the true figure could be substantially higher,” the Wall Street Journal reports:
Experts such as Sean Turnell, a professor at Australia’s Macquarie University and editor of Burma Economic Watch, point out that many of the remittances are routed through obscure informal channels, like the traditional hundi syndicates operating across Southeast Asia and wherever else Myanmar migrants are found. Through this centuries-old system, workers hand over money to an agent, specifying where the money is to be sent. A counterpart in Myanmar then delivers the money to a given address, sometimes without any actual cash being channeled into the country at all.
Mr. Turnell and other experts say this is a way for people to sidestep Myanmar authorities, which are still widely distrusted even after the armed forces handed over power to a quasi-civilian government early last year. But it also makes it difficult to quantify how much money is flowing in and out of the country.
New labor legislation, notably the Labor Dispute Settlement Law, provides an encouraging instance of reform, says the new Amnesty International report.
“Not only does the law itself promote and protect the rights of workers, but the government also consulted international experts in drafting it. Both law and process set a constructive precedent,” it said.
Irrawaddy and Democratic Voice of Burma are supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group. The Solidarity Center is one of the NED’s four core institutes.