Zarni: Isolating Burma will not help Aung San Suu Kyi

Western supporters have not failed her, but their policies have failed the people of my country
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the world's most famous political prisoner, turns 60 this Sunday, under house arrest in her lakeside villa since 2003, with only two maids to keep her company and infrequent visits from her personal doctor, himself a former political prisoner.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the world's most famous political prisoner, turns 60 this Sunday, under house arrest in her lakeside villa since 2003, with only two maids to keep her company and infrequent visits from her personal doctor, himself a former political prisoner.

The best birthday present her supporters could give "Daw Suu" is to help to re-integrate her country, both the regime and the society, into the world's community and economy.

An impressive collection of luminaries, Hollywood celebrities, rock stars and politicians have sent their birthday wishes through the international media. They all offer a common birthday gift: a promise further to isolate Burma "until the regime reconciles with its people".

Daw Suu's supporters are well meaning and their heart is in the right place. But in any country under prolonged sanctions and isolation, the people are the ones who pay the heaviest price, not the generals.

No one denies that my country's conditions - human rights, poverty, long-standing and political conflicts, just to name a few - are deplorable. The regime is responsible for many, if not all, of its ills. But the causes go deeper than lack of good governance, transparency and accountability. They are intergenerational, ethnic and deeply structural. It will take a painfully long evolutionary process to address them. And it will need a lot of assistance, intellectual, political, economic, and, last but not least, patience.

Daw Suu's supporters must evaluate the impact of the isolationist policies. For many around the world, especially in the West, "Free Burma" has become just another "Free Tibet". Changing a society deep in conflict and poverty requires a bit more thought and effort than burning one's Triumph bra. (Triumph pulled out of Burma under consumer pressure, leaving hundreds of women jobless.)

There is no one-size-fits-all policy model. Burma under military rule is not apartheid South Africa. What worked in Tutu's South Africa - or Havel's Czech Republic - may not work in Daw Suu's Burma.

The departure of Western corporations extracting Burma's natural resources has not disrupted revenue flows to the regime, since Asian investors, especially those from the two fastest growing economies, China and India, are quick to fill the vacant seats. The generals have shrugged their departure off, rather than feeling pressured to open a dialogue.

Worst still, thanks to its policies toward Burma, the West has marginalised itself, if not made itself entirely irrelevant, in terms of its ability to influence domestic developments. Conversely, the West's policies have failed to strengthen Daw Suu's democratic opposition. Among the dissidents, both in exile and inside my country, it is now an open secret, if taboo to say it, that the NLD has been in a revolutionary coma since its iconic General Secretary was locked up. This is a reality unlikely to change.

My coalition and other citizen activists around the world worked hard advocating these policies in the past 10 years. We were truly inspired by Daw Suu's fearless words and her exemplary sacrifices. It is now a bitter pill for me to swallow to witness that the campaign has failed. Western supporters of Daw Suu have not failed her; but their policies have failed the people of my country.

For their survival, the generals don't need the West. The generals have China and India, on each side of the borders. They don't even much like Westerners coming in with their universal standards. But it is the Burmese people and the country that need the West. They need it for progressive ideas and ideals, for education, for technologies, for greater exposure, and for the growth of democracy.

Pro-isolationists among my fellow dissidents abroad and Daw Suu's Western supporters alike have argued that "constructive engagement" pursued by the ASEAN has not worked either. They are right because it engages with only the generals and doesn't address real substance or sensitive issues. So what then is my prescription? The answer is, in a word, evolution. Evolutionary in the backdrop of the successively failed revolutions, including Daw Suu's fearless "revolution of the spirit".

Asia is going through rapid and powerful evolutionary changes. The surest, if slowest venue for social change is to ensure that the country - yes, "the evil regime" as well - gets integrated into the trans-Asiatic current of change through trade and security, cultural interactions and intellectual cross-fertilisation.

I know that Daw Suu herself would say her movement is all about people, not about her. It's past time that policy makers and my fellow dissidents abroad put people back in their policy advocacy and formulations.

That would be the best 60th birthday gift her supporters around the world can give this extraordinary human being.

Dr Zarni is founder of the Free Burma Coalition, and currently a Visiting Fellow at the University of London Institute of Education. He was born in Mandalay

Comments