Sanctions Issue Still Divides Opinion in Burma

By Lawi Weng 20 September 2012

The issue of easing economic sanctions against Burma, a move advocated by democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi during a speech in Washington on Tuesday, still divides politicians and activists.

On Wednesday, the White House lifted sanctions against Burmese President Thein Sein and Lower House of Parliament Speaker Shwe Mann by removing them from the list of Specially Designated Nationals.

This action allows the pair access to once-blocked property and assets, and allows transactions involving US persons or in the United States. However, the possibility of the further rolling back of economic trade restrictions has polarized opinion in Burma.

Min Ko Naing, a prominent former political prisoner and leader of the 88 Generation Students group, said, “I want to question what level of rules and regulation procedures we have in our country. We do not have anything yet. There is no free competition for investment in our country.

“I am worried that the removal of economic sanctions will only help cronies who are close to the government, and opportunities will not go to our poor civilians. Then the situation will get even worse.”

Min Ko Naing said removing sanctions will help develop the nation but there are many factors which must be carefully considered. “It is not enough to only remove sanction,” he told The Irrawaddy on Thursday. “We have to prepare many things in order to have fair investment. The country needs technology and skills from investment and we need to protect the environment.”

In response to a question on the US-Burma relationship, Suu Kyi told an audience in the US capital that her countrymen should not depend on international trade restrictions to keep up the momentum of the democracy movement.

“I do support the easing of sanctions. I think that our people must start taking responsibility for their own destiny. I do not think we should depend on US sanctions to keep up the momentum of our movement for democracy,” the 67-year-old told an event organized by the Asia Society, US Institute of Peace and State Department.

“We’ve got to work at it ourselves. And there are very many other ways in which the United States can help us to achieve our democratic ends and help us to build up the kind of democratic institutions that we are in such need of. Sanctions are not the only way. We are very, very grateful for the fact that sanctions were instituted in the past. It helped us greatly.”

In early August, the United States renewed the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act for another year with lawmakers calling for further reforms including an end to ethnic conflicts and the release of political prisoners.

The legislation bans imports of Burmese products and was passed despite other restrictive measures prohibiting investment in the former pariah state recently being eased by Washington. However, observers believe even these last remaining trade restrictions could soon be removed.

Dr. Aye Maung, an MP and chairman of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, said that Burma has a minimal level of democracy as Suu Kyi became entered Parliament through fair elections and can now even travel abroad.

“Economic sanctions hurt people living in remote areas more, especially ethnic people. I welcome the easing of sanctions on Burma as urged by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi,” he said.

Removing sanctions would help encourage the government to move forward to democracy, said Aye Maung. “We all need a stable democratic system. In order to have this, we need help and support from the international community,” he added.

Aye Maung said that the country cannot only use one tool such as sanctions to work for political change, and that society should not only blame the government for the lack of peace. There are groups who want to destroy peace and that is why ceasefire negotiations are not always successful, he added.

“Under sanctions it might be difficult to work for peace,” said Aye Maung. “Therefore, we need to support the working peace process from the government in order to reach that goal.”

By contrast, Karen National Union General-Secretary Zipporah Sein said trade restrictions should stay in place. “It is only Aung San Suu Kyi’s idea for sanctions to be eased in Burma and she should have discussed this with other people before saying this,” she told The Irrawaddy.

“For us, it is too early to remove sanctions and we wanted trade restrictions to remain as there are more things to be done in order to have genuine peace in Burma for political change.”

Nai Hang Thar, the secretary of both the United Nationalities Federal Council and New Mon State Party, told The Irrawaddy that it is not yet the right time to remove sanctions but they should perhaps be eased to encourage further political reform.

“Aung San Suu Kyi is in Parliament and she may think there is political change towards democracy,” he said. “But, for our ethnic groups, we want to build real peace but nothing successful has been reached in the meantime. This is why we want sanctions to remain in order to push for political change to have real peace with ethnic groups and dismantle the old system.”

Nai Hang Thar said that real peace will always be illusive until the government engages in genuine political dialogue with ethnic groups. “The government is using its armed forces to fight the Kachin,” he added. “This is why we believe the government does not wish to have real political change.”