Monday, January 31, 2011

Aung San Suu Kyi (virtually) at Davos

UNABLE to come herself last week to the annual world business leaders’ knees-up at Davos in Switzerland, Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of Myanmar’s democracy movement, got to address the assembled grandees by audio link instead (or read the text here). The timing, on Friday January 28th, was significant. It might have been Davos week, but it was also just a few days before the opening of Myanmar’s first parliament in the country’s new purpose-built capital, Naypyidaw.

The country’s military rulers would have people believe that the new parliament, along with November’s general elections—not to mention the release of Miss Suu Kyi herself from house arrest—all signify a democratic transition under way.

Miss Suu Kyi, however, mentioned none of the above to her Davos audience. Her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), believes that the whole show is a sham, designed to curry support for a repressive military regime that in fact has no intention of fundamentally changing its ways. Indeed, as if to prove the point, that very same day, on January 28th, Myanmar’s highest court threw out an appeal against the government’s dissolution of the NLD as a political party. The NLD had been banned for refusing to take part in what it regarded as the fraudulent elections in November.

Instead, Miss Suu Kyi’s remarks dwelt on the economic hardships that her people have been experiencing, and her own sense of isolation during her years under house arrest. She pointed out how far Myanmar has fallen behind other countries, and how economic integration with the rest of the world is now necessary. Before the junta, when the independent country was still called Burma, its prospects for trade and prosperity looked as rich as any in South-East Asia.

Intriguingly, Miss Suu Kyi asked for more investment in technology and infrastructure, but said that investors “should pay close attention to the costs and collateral damage of our development, whether environmental or social.” Furthermore, she urged “those who have invested or who are thinking of investing in Burma to put a premium on respect for law, on environmental and social factors, on the rights of workers, on job creation and on the promotion of technological skills.”

There is a very lively debate going on among pro-democracy activists as to whether it is yet time to call for the end of sanctions by Western countries; but I don’t think these comments of Miss Suu Kyi’s were aimed at the foreign governments.

Rather, I think she was speaking to Chinese, Thai and other Asian investors who are coming in and, by all accounts, doing great damage to many of Myanmar’s minority communities and to its environmental resources—the Chinese in particular. I don’t expect Miss Suu Kyi’s appeals to change things very much, but I hope it focuses fresh attention on the misdeeds of those investors who are already operating in Myanmar. The Economist

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