BEIJING – In many ways it is a brand new world for Myanmar’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. But she remains highly concerned that her own country is still living in the past — still operating under corrupt practices, still mired in severe joblessness, still under the military’s influence and still beholden to the international community to continue to shine the spotlight on this newly reborn country.
For the first time this week in over 22 years, Suu Kyi traveled outside of the country she still calls Burma. The Nobel laureate and former political prisoner attended the World Economic Forum in Bangkok. Addressing the issue of new economic opportunities in East Asia, she called for “healthy skepticism” when considering Myanmar. Primarily, she warned that her country is in dire need of a clean judicial system before global investment should take place.
“We have to try to eradicate corruption and inequality as we proceed towards greater investment,” she said. “We do not want more investment to mean more possibilities for corruption. We do not want investment to mean greater inequality. We do not want investment to mean greater privilege for the already privileged. We want investment to mean, quite simply, jobs. As many jobs as possible. It is as simple as that.”
In her first public speech broadcast live over several time zones, Suu Kyi’s remarks were warmly received despite her cautious tone. She welcomed the recent easing of US sanctions imposed since 1997, when President Bill Clinton issued an executive order banning all new investment. That was followed by three additional executive orders since by President George W. Bush in 2003, 2007 and 2008 which resulted in freezing the assets of certain Burmese officials. But there is concern that without sanctions the international community (the EU has also eased its own sanctions) loses too much leverage; which could allow the ruling party to reshape the country instead of its people.
The US had long opposed the harsh military rule long imposed by Myanmar’s government. Suu Kyi’s own family history has a direct military link; her father, Gen. Aung San, was the country’s independence hero. He was assassinated in 1947, just six months before independence. Ms. Su Kyi left Myanmar, living and studying in England as an adult. But in 1988 she returned to Myanmar, in part to care for her elderly mother.
She was swept up in nationwide protests against the government and ultimately felt she could not leave her father’s legacy to perish. Inspired by Ghandi, she led a peaceful revolt against then dictator, General Ni Win. But in 1990 the military junta seized power, and Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest. It would last for more than two decades.
After two decades of increased global pressure and isolation, the country held its first free elections in 2010. Soon after Suu Kyi was released from house arrest. On May 17 of this year, just weeks after she won a seat in parliament, the US suspended sanctions barring US investment in Myanmar in response to political reform. At the time Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said, “Today we say to American business; invest in Burma and do it responsibly.”
On Friday, Suu Kyi expressed her hope that the world would not abandon its mission to see reform through to the finish. “These days I am coming across what I call reckless optimism,” she said. “A little bit of healthy skepticism, I think, is in order.”
Suu Kyi received a standing ovation from the crowd, a warm welcome back to the international stage she thought she might never see again.