Since their historic first meeting in Rangoon last December, Hillary Clinton and Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi have been moving in lockstep.
Last month Suu Kyi seized the opportunities offered by the new wind of reform blowing in Southeast Asia’s poorest nation to lead her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), to a triumphant election result. She and her colleagues won several dozen seats in parliament. Meanwhile Secretary Clinton offered strong American backing to Suu Kyi herself and to President Thein Sein, the man chiefly responsible for dragging Burma out of the shadows.
But on Thursday they parted company.
That was the day that the secretary of State, with bipartisan support from Congress, announced that the U.S.’s tough sanctions on Burma were to be suspended. These varied and complex measures, many of which have been in force since 1990, cannot be eliminated at a stroke, but President Obama did the next best thing, suspending the enforcement of most of them. For the first time in more than 20 years, this impoverished but resource-rich land of more than 50 million people comes within the purview of American business. The opportunities could be staggering.
Justifying the new policy, Clinton said, “This is a moment for us to recognize that the progress which has occurred in the last year towards democratization and national reconciliation is irreversible.”
But earlier in the week, Suu Kyi told a conference in Washington by video link, “You have to remember the democratization process is not irreversible.”
On Thursday, sitting alongside Burmese Foreign Minister U Wunna Maung Lwin in the State Department’s Treaty Room, Clinton said, “Today we say to American business: invest in Burma, and do it responsibly.” She went on, “We are suspending sanctions. We believe that is the appropriate step for us to take today. We will be keeping the relevant laws on the books as an insurance policy, but our goal and our commitment is to move as rapidly as we can to expand business and investment opportunities.”
By suspending sanctions except those that relate to Burma’s armed forces, Clinton echoed the policy announced last month by British Prime Minister David Cameron, standing beside Suu Kyi in the garden of her villa in Rangoon, Burma’s largest city and former capital. Suu Kyi herself endorsed the new line. But in recent days she has been at pains to express a more nuanced view.
“I’m not against the suspension of sanctions as long as the people of the United States feel that this is the right thing to do at the moment,” she told the Washington conference on Tuesday. But, she went on, “I believe sanctions have been effective in persuading the government to go for change.”
Suspending sanctions is, she conceded, “a way of sending a strong message” of support for the reforms that are under way. The reforms so far enacted include the release of the most high-profile political prisoners, the loosening of media censorship, and the legalization of trade unions.
But the democracy icon went on to warn that the reforms were “not irreversible” until the country’s military leaders were “solidly and officially committed to democratization.” As one example of the work that remains to be done, she said, “There should be no political prisoners in Burma if they really aim for democratization.”
Suu Kyi, who spent more than 15 years under house arrest before being re-admitted to Burma’s political life last year, finds herself walking a delicate line.
On the one hand, thanks to President Thein Sein’s reforms, Suu Kyi’s party has moved rapidly from being an outlawed pariah constantly in danger of being brutally extinguished to by far the most important and significant opposition voice in the country. She herself won a seat in parliament and there is talk that she may be offered the role of speaker in it, which would elevate her at a stroke to the top table, with real potential influence on regime policy.
On the other hand, as Suu Kyi is painfully aware, the reforms are still only halfway there. The country is still at war: a bitter conflict with the insurgent Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in the north of the country that broke out last year, ending a 17-year ceasefire, is getting worse not better, with both sides blaming the other for recent escalation. The suspension by the president of work on a highly unpopular dam over the Irrawaddy river may yet be thrown into reverse: Chinese state media reported on Wednesday that the project is being evaluated by experts from the NGO the International Commission on Large Dams.
Most crucially of all, the nation’s constitution, which guarantees the military a decisive role in the executive, remains unchanged: a quarter of parliamentary seats are still reserved for the armed forces, and Burma’s Defense Council has the power to shut down the civilian government and re-impose martial law at will.
To armor plate Burma’s nascent and still-fragile democracy from military interference, Suu Kyi and her party are determined to bring about radical constitutional reform. Whether the suspension of sanctions will speed this process or, by relinquishing the only real weapon the West possessed, render it impossible, remains to be seen.