- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 28, 2010

Democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi wants to review the consequences of sanctions on her country, Myanmar, before she can determine whether these curbs need to be lifted or focused more sharply.

In a phone interview with The Washington Times from Yangon on Friday, Mrs. Suu Kyi said her National League for Democracy (NLD) party is “prepared to review the situation to find out if our people had really been hurt by the sanctions, and if they had been, in what way.”

“We want to know if it’s really time for sanctions to be lifted, or it’s time for sanctions to be adapted,” she said.

Mrs. Suu Kyi, who spent 15 of the past 21 years in detention, was released from house arrest on Nov. 13.

Last year, she sent a letter to Myanmar’s ruling military generals suggesting that the NLD, the country’s largest opposition party, may cooperate with them to bring about an end to sanctions.

The NLD periodically reviews the effectiveness of sanctions.

“If we find that the sanctions are only hurting the people and that there is no positive outcome as a result of the sanctions, then certainly we would consider calling on those who have imposed sanctions to think whether it is not time to stop them,” Mrs. Suu Kyi said.

“But it is not as simple as all that,” she said. “There are many, many aspects of sanctions undertaken by our supporters because they wanted to help us achieve the democratic process. So it is not as easy as saying, ‘Well, we think that it’s time for sanctions to be lifted.’ “

While the Obama administration has initiated a senior-level diplomatic dialogue with Myanmar’s authorities, sanctions continue to be an important tool of U.S. policy.

In July, a measure to extend sanctions on Myanmar sailed through Congress: The House passed the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act of 2003 in a voice vote, and it garnered the support of 99 of the Senate’s 100 members.

A congressional source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity citing the sensitive nature of the matter, said several members of Congress are looking to Mrs. Suu Kyi for guidance.

“If they see her taking a more pragmatic and conciliatory approach, it would create a lot more space for a more flexible position” in Congress on sanctions, the congressional source said.

Mrs. Suu Kyi doesn’t think there is anything wrong with the two-pronged U.S. approach toward Myanmar, which also is known as Burma.

“I think engagement is a good thing. Whether or not it has an effect on the generals is something that you must ask [U.S. officials],” she said.

A U.S. official, who spoke on background citing the sensitive nature of the matter, said the sanctions provide an important source of leverage for influencing the regime’s behavior.

The Obama administration intends to keep the sanctions in place until Myanmar’s regime releases all political prisoners, ends attacks against ethnic groups and establishes a meaningful dialogue with opposition groups, the U.S. official said.

Human rights groups estimate that Myanmar is holding 2,100 political prisoners.

Mrs. Suu Kyi said the international community must work in coordination to be effective in dealing with Myanmar’s military rulers. “That would help a great deal. I think at the moment there are different policies with regard to Myanmar and it does detract from the eventual effectiveness of various initiatives,” she said.

China, India and Thailand and other countries have engaged Myanmar’s military rulers with an eye on the country’s vast natural resources.

This engagement raises the question whether the U.S. has diminished its influence in Myanmar and made its people more dependent on their neighbors, particularly China, the congressional source said.

In an address to India’s Parliament in New Delhi this month, President Obama urged India to condemn the violation of human rights and suppression of peaceful democratic movements in Myanmar.

The junta barred the NLD from participating in the Nov. 7 elections, which the U.S. declared a sham.

The party won the last election in 1990 by a landslide, but the military prevented it from ruling.

Ahead of this year’s election, the military imposed laws that forced political parties to expel members with criminal records, including political prisoners such as Mrs. Suu Kyi. The NLD was dissolved after it refused to abide by these laws.

Mrs. Suu Kyi, a Nobel peace laureate, said her party did not take part in the elections because it didn’t think the rules and regulations were fair.

The NLD has since set up a committee to look into allegations of irregularities and vote-rigging.

Last week, Myanmar’s supreme court refused to hear Mrs. Suu Kyi’s lawsuit challenging the decision to dissolve the NLD.

Mrs. Suu Kyi said she intends to appeal the court’s decision but is not confident that she will get justice.

“We have had much experience in the past to indicate that we don’t get free and fair hearings. But still, since we believe in the rule of law, we will pursue this case as far as possible,” she said. “At the same time, the survival of the NLD does not depend on any court of law; it depends on the will of the people.”

Mrs. Suu Kyi expects the NLD will continue to play the role of a “very, very strong opposition force” and wants the party to broaden its engagement with pro-democracy forces within Myanmar.

“What people don’t seem to realize is that we have had restrictions placed on the party for the last 20 years. That is nothing new for us,” she said. “What is new is that we have a far larger circle of supporters than we used to have in the past.”

As for the role of the army in politics, Mrs. Suu Kyi said she was open to the idea of a “transition period in which we would have to think of ways of bridging over our differences in gradual stages.”

“We know that transition will take time and it will have to go in stages,” she said.

She said it was too early to tell whether her release is a sign that the regime of Senior Gen. Than Shwe is having a change of heart.

“I have been released from house arrest before and then put back in. So I think it is a little too early to say whether there has been real a softening,” she said.

Although she has expressed her readiness for reconciliation talks with the junta, the generals have not reciprocated.

“If they had reached out to us, we would have grasped their hands,” Mrs. Suu Kyi said.

Mrs. Suu Kyi said her life has turned “very, very hectic” since her release. Despite being freed from the confines of her home, she hasn’t had time to venture out of Yangon. Her days have been packed with meetings and interviews.

On Saturday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s chief of staff, Vijay Nambiar, met her at her home in Yangon.

She also had an emotional reunion with her younger son, Kim.

“Seeing my son again was very, very nice and happy and lovely and all the nice words I can think of,” Mrs. Suu Kyi said.

She said she has been struck by the large number of young NLD supporters.

“The proportion of young people among our supporters was not this high and they were not this enthusiastic” before she was put under house arrest, Mrs. Suu Kyi said.

She attributed the trend to the fact that “more and more people [in Myanmar] have come to realize that there is a need for change.”