Pressure on Suu Kyi to show progress during US visit

Aung San Suu Kyi listens to US President Barack Obama deliver remarks to members of the news media during their meeting in the White House on Sept 14, 2016.
Aung San Suu Kyi listens to US President Barack Obama deliver remarks to members of the news media during their meeting in the White House on Sept 14, 2016. PHOTO: EPA

Key issue will be if it's time to lift remaining sanctions on Myanmar

YANGON • When Ms Aung San Suu Kyi visited the United States in 2012, she was celebrated as Myanmar's newly free opposition leader after years of detention under house arrest.

Since then, her National League for Democracy has won a sweeping election victory, and the military seems to be retreating from political life. For Washington, she stands as a gleaming example of a successful policy of constructive engagement.

But as she began her first trip to the US as Myanmar's leader yesterday, Ms Suu Kyi would be held accountable for what her government has accomplished, and what it has not, since she took office six months ago. An immediate question for Obama administration officials during her visit is whether the time has come to lift the remaining sanctions on Myanmar and to encourage military-to-military cooperation and development aid.

The decision is not just a matter of promoting US businesses in Myanmar. It also involves an assessment of her short record in power, as well as a measure of how Myanmar fits in Washington's "pivot to Asia" strategy and its efforts to offset China's influence in the region.

Washington's remaining sanctions on Myanmar are narrowly targeted: They apply to the trade in jade and precious stones and to doing business with some military officials or their business affiliates.

In theory, they should not be a major impediment to US investment there. But "any sanctions brand the country as being a risky place", Mr Sean Turnell, an economic adviser to the Myanmar government, said. "And so lifting them would have an effect on corporate psychology."

Some think it is too soon to loosen the restrictions. Mr Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said: "The Burmese government doesn't deserve a wide-scale lifting of sanctions. Its record on human rights has really been mixed."

Mr Robertson acknowledged the release of political prisoners, but cited the continued arrests of civil society activists, as well as the government's failure to repeal laws limiting free speech and the rights of religious minorities.

Ms Suu Kyi on Tuesday met British Prime Minister Theresa May during her first visit to London since becoming Myanmar's de facto leader, with the thorny issue of human rights on the agenda.

The two women discussed the challenges faced by Myanmar as it transitions from military rule to democracy during Ms Suu Kyi's first visit outside of Asia since her party's election victory last year.

"They agreed that to create a society that truly works for all, it would be important to see Burma (Myanmar) make further progress in the creation of jobs, in improving access to quality healthcare, and on reforming the education system," said Mrs May's Downing Street office.

London stands "ready to provide further assistance as Burma continues to develop", including through £118 million (S$212 million) in support this year, it added.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 15, 2016, with the headline 'Pressure on Suu Kyi to show progress during US visit'. Print Edition | Subscribe