Feb 23, 2011

Myanmar Activist Suu Kyi Addresses Forum

Myanmar pro-democracy dissident Aung San Suu Kyi may not be ready to call for an end to Western sanctions against her troubled country just yet. But she made clear she thinks foreign investment will be key to lifting the Southeast Asian nation of 55 million people out of poverty — and that Western leaders should keep looking for ways to make more socially responsible investment there possible.
In a taped address (listen here) to the World Economic Forum, Ms. Suu Kyi said she “looks forward” to a day when her country will be open to more Western companies, though that day likely remains far off for now due to sanctions that block most U.S. and other Western firms from doing business there.
“We need investments in technology and infrastructure,” she said in the speech, recorded in Yangon, where she lives. “We also need to reform our legal system that we might be able to attract foreign direct investment and guarantee the rule of law.”
“I look forward to the day when there will be a political and social environment that is favorable to a wide range of investments in Burma,” she added, using the name for her country that is preferred by some Western governments, including the U.S. “We are certainly in need of innovation and diversification if our country is to fulfill the aspirations of its people and catch up with the rest of the world.”
The 65-year-old Nobel laureate has repeatedly signaled her intent to review the merits of economic sanctions against Myanmar since its military junta released her from seven years of house arrest in November. People familiar with Ms. Suu Kyi’s thinking say she is concerned that sanctions may be harming some of the country’s population by deterring necessary investments in health care and other services. But she remains reluctant to call for an end to the sanctions without significant concessions from the military regime, which swept Myanmar’s first national election in 20 years a few days before her release. Those concessions could include the release of 2,000 or more political prisoners, among other steps.
Ms. Suu Kyi added in her speech that her political organization, the National League for Democracy, has embarked on “an experimental microcredit scheme on a very small scale” to help bring more investment to poorer areas in the absence of more foreign capital. She didn’t elaborate further, though the very act of setting up such a program could be viewed as subversive in Myanmar, since the government officially disbanded the NLD last year. The group has continued to meet in defiance of state orders and has indicated it intends to keep operating as a social welfare organization.
The address underscored how technology is helping Ms. Suu Kyi reach a wider audience than in past years, which could help amplify her influence. When she was awarded the Nobel prize in the early 1990s, for instance, one of her sons had to accept the award on her behalf. Now, advances in technology have made it easier for her to speak more directly to her followers and world leaders. She recently was allowed Internet access in Yangon and has said she is interested in tweeting regularly.
Ms. Suu Kyi has declined opportunities to travel outside of Myanmar out of fears that the Myanmar government would not allow her to return home afterward.
In keeping with past public statements, she stopped short of direct, harsh criticism of Myanmar’s regime, which is accused of widespread human-rights violations since it took power in 1962. Some analysts and people familiar with her thinking have said they believe she is hoping to appear conciliatory so that the country’s newly elected government — including a parliament expected to convene as early as Jan. 31 — will be more willing to negotiate with her in her bid to bring about democratic reforms, though so far the government has given no indication it intends to hold talks with her.
She may also be afraid the government will put her back under house arrest if she is too openly critical of the regime, these people say.
Still, Ms. Suu Kyi made clear that she believes major political changes must occur in Myanmar if it is to catch up with the rest of the emerging world. “Despite an abundance of natural resources, Burma’s development has lagged far behind its neighbours,” she said. “Our government annually spends about 40% of our GDP on the military and barely 2% on health and education combined.”
She closed her brief speech by calling on “all those present at this gathering to use their particular opportunities and skills as far as possible to promote national reconciliation, genuine democratization, human development and economic growth in Burma.”


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