Who, except her military jailers, was not moved when the Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi emerged from seven years of house arrest earlier this month?
The elegant Nobel Peace Prize winner has been imprisoned for 15 of the last 20 years as she sought to bring democracy to Myanmar, a nation once known as Burma and ruled by a hard-line military junta. Her continued popularity stems not only from her immense courage, but from her heritage: Her father led Burma’s struggle for independence from Britain in 1948.
If the generals feel threatened by Suu Kyi’s standing with her people, they will rearrest her, just as they nullified her party’s landslide victory at the polls in 1990. This is a military with little interest in sharing power: It just held a rigged election that gave 80 percent of the seats to the party backed by the junta.
So what, if anything, can the United States do to help Suu Kyi expand civic rights in her country? At a time when America’s power is waning and its citizens are looking inward, is this a cause we should even embrace?
The answer to the latter question is yes, and not just because Suu Kyi’s cause elicits strong bipartisan support in Congress. Suu Kyi has become a symbol for all those around the world who are struggling for rights guaranteed by U.N. conventions — universal rights — in an era when the chance for achieving those rights seems to be fading.
That said, America’s ability to help her is limited. U.S. sanctions on trade with, and investment in, Myanmar have not moved the generals. The Obama administration’s attempts at engagement have not persuaded them to change their behavior. The junta is so wary of foreign interference that it preferred to let its people die by the thousands rather than accept international aid after a devastating 2008 cyclone.
Meantime, efforts to persuade Myanmar’s neighbors — China, India, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations — to squeeze the junta have made little progress. Myanmar’s natural resources, such as oil, gas, precious metals and gemstones, have tempted those countries to undercut traditional sanctions.
The United States supports the formation of a U.N. commission to examine possible war crimes by Myanmar’s rulers. But longtime Myanmar-watchers believe the junta can’t be moved unless some elements within the armed forces decide to support political reforms. No signs of that yet.
Tom Malinowski, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, says the generals might pay attention if their personal interests are threatened. He argues that, rather than pursue broad economic sanctions, Washington should implement targeted financial sanctions authorized by Congress that penalize any international banks that handle the junta’s billions.
Such a strategy has made an impact on Iran, but it is painstaking and demands extensive manpower and funding, along with global cooperation — at a minimum from Europe. However, if this strategy generates congressional support, it deserves a try.
Suu Kyi’s daunting struggle for political reforms, waged against phenomenal odds, is a reminder of other fighters for such freedoms.
There’s Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, serving an 11-year prison term for demanding political reforms in his country, who will be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway, on Dec. 10. Beijing is refusing to let any of Liu’s family members attend the ceremony; this would be the first time no one was present to collect the medal since the Nazis prevented the 1936 winner, pacifist Carl von Ossietzky, from leaving Germany.
And, for the first time in Nobel history, the homeland of the winner — China — has pressured other countries not to send representatives to the ceremony; shame on Russia, Iraq, and a few others for giving in.
Then there is Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man and leading oil tycoon, who has become the most visible symbol of the absence of the rule of law in Russia. He has served seven years in Siberia on trumped-up tax-evasion charges and faces another harsh sentence based on the ludicrous accusation that he stole 218 million tons of oil.
These charges are patently political, levied because Khodorkovsky had become a potential political rival to former Russian President Vladimir V. Putin. Khodorkovsky is not as pure a hero as Suu Kyi, but if he is convicted again, this will signal that Russia has no intention of reforming its rigged judiciary or Kremlin-controlled autocracy. U.S. and European leaders should make their concerns about this case very clear.
There is no room here to mention the many others in Russia, China, the Middle East, Iran, and elsewhere who are fighting for human and political rights, and against corruption, without benefit of the limelight. Suu Kyi’s long and painful odyssey symbolizes their struggle, and she deserves our support.
— Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. firstname.lastname@example.org