Burma wants the United States and European Union to keep their “promise” to lift economic sanctions after Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won a landslide victory in a series of by-elections.
“The Electoral process has [now] been successfully conducted, this will be mainly concentrated on by the West and [now it] will be the turn for them to fulfill their promise,” said Nay Zin Latt, a senior adviser to President Thein Sein.
He hinted that Daw Suu Kyi could be offered an official position to allow her to play a more central role in the country’s tentative reform process.
“As the daughter of General Aung San, the father of our independence, she will be favored to some extent,” he said.
France today called on its EU partners to expedite the easing of sanctions a day after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced a “targeted easing” of restrictions on investment and financial services.
“The results of the April 1 parliamentary by-elections represent a dramatic demonstration of popular will that brings a new generation of reformers into government,” she said. “This is an important step in the country’s transformation.”
Sanctions would remain on those officials who “remain on the wrong side of these historic reform efforts.”
The west must move quickly or risk jeopardizing the fragile reform process, some observers suggest.
“Everything hinges on three things: the democratization process, ongoing efforts to fully resolve conflicts in ethnic zones, and economic reform efforts. When you are dealing with the first two, and even if you are successful, the fragility of the economy means that third leg of the stool may not be strong enough,” says Charles Petrie, a former UN resident representative in Myanmar. “They [government reformers] need support to help address heightened expectations that have been raised by the reforms.”
While recognizing the need to reward reform and incentivize further progress, Burmese democracy advocates caution against overreaction.
“We know that they need to do something, some kind of positive gestures,” said Aung Din, a former political prisoner who heads the U.S. Campaign for Burma, “but if they do it very quickly, and make it too generous, it will only undermine the democratic forces in the country.”
“What they have achieved from the United States for giving 7% of seats in the Parliament to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is enormous,” he said. Western democracies should consult rights groups on managing sanctions to ensure the reform process is “irreversible.”
Burma’s military leaders have a history of failing to deliver on promises of change, says a leading expert. “Sometimes it comes just simply from an apparatus that find it very, very difficult to implement reforms but equally sometimes it can be people deliberate stymieing reform or it can be just announcements made in order to appease the international community and then the regime goes along more or less as it was,” says Sean Turnell, a Burma analyst at Australia’s Macquarie University. Lifting sanctions would be a significant move if it helped support reform, but there are “still some doubts” about the sustainability and integrity of the reform process, he says.
“We are still very early in this process and a lot can go wrong,” he suggests. “If one looks at what reforms are actually implemented compared to what reforms have actually been announced then there certainly is an argument that it is right at the cusp of being early. It is just a matter I think of whether we believe that reformers need the support now or not.”
But other observers fear a backlash from regime hardliners already disenchanted with Thein Sein’s reforms.
“He fought the hardliners in order to try to meet the west’s demands; they complain it has brought nothing but humiliation and now he’s under pressure to deliver economic benefits – the first and most visible thing would be a significant gesture from the west,” says a government adviser.
Western companies are also lobbying for sanctions to be lifted for fear of losing out to Asian competitors:
For western investors, the “look-see” phase is likely to intensify with the lifting of sanctions. Before then, however, companies are eyeing opportunities to sell goods and are investigating potentially lucrative infrastructure and transport contracts. Big investment banks are arranging client visits. Some, including Nomura of Japan and Switzerland’s UBS, have issued reports cautiously endorsing Myanmar as a possible “Asian tiger” – even as they all warn that developments will take time.
“Myanmar is in the same place China was in early 1979, when Deng Xiaoping said: ‘We have to do something new.’ Myanmar is opening up,” says Jim Rogers, a billionaire US investor. “If I could put all my money into Myanmar, I would.” The country…. is “right between China and India, 60m people, massive natural resources, agriculture … they have metals, they have energy, they have everything.”
Freedom of association will be a key indicator of the government’s commitment to democratic reform.
“Aside from the elections in April, some of the highest-profile changes the Burmese government has introduced in the recent thaw have come in the labor sector,” writes Timothy Ryan, Asia director of the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center. “The question is whether the government will follow through.”
Nonetheless, the industrial workers, farmers, textile workers, and journalists I met with in Burma in January are eager to test the [new labor] law. They’ve already organized independent unions and applied for registration, although none have yet gained recognition….. For two decades, the Federation of Trade Unions-Burma (FTUB) has been training labor activists both inside and outside the country, and these activists are forming unions to test the new law. One of the first things the government must do is allow for the registration of the FTUB under the new law and drop all the bogus charges of “terrorism” against U Maung Maung, the FTUB’s general secretary. Next, comprehensive legal reform of all labor and freedom of assembly laws to allow true freedom of association and collective bargaining must be enacted.
“When I met with Aung San Suu Kyi in January, she told me what she thought a future Burma labor movement and economy should look like,” he writes:
Her vision of Burma is not a low-wage garment manufacturer like Bangladesh. She told me it was important for unions to be responsible and to work for their members, and that the new unions should not be tools or fronts for any political parties, including her own National League for Democracy. She argued that political parties and the government should not create unions and made clear that the NLD had no desire or intent to do so.
In the meantime, the US and other democracies should link the lifting of sanctions to the consolidation of the reform process and tangible moves towards a genuine democratic transition.
“They’re treating the sanctions as a dial that can be calibrated rather than just retaining them completely or lifting them wholesale,” said Tom Malinowski, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch. “They could use it to boost the fortunes of reformers in Burma while disadvantaging those still standing in the way.”
The Solidarity Center is one of the core institutes of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.