The latest instance of this malicious meme appeared in the July 23 edition of The Economist, in an item titled “The Lady should be for turning.” The piece begins by noting the 20th anniversary of the day Suu Kyi was first placed under house arrest, and proceeds with a de rigeur acknowledgment of her two decades of courage and personal sacrifice (no doubt to avoid the sort of excoriation provoked by an article published in Britain’s Guardian newspaper in November 2008, originally titled “Not such such a hero after all,” which was later subject to numerous corrections and a public apology).
Once the formalities are out of the way, however, the writer, citing “a growing body of opinion,” poses the question of whether Suu Kyi is an “icon or obstacle.” More specifically, Suu Kyi’s position on sanctions is obliquely attacked as the cause of Burma’s economic misery, and by extension, its failure to achieve any meaningful progress towards democracy.
There are numerous objections that one could make to this assertion, which the writer does not attempt to support in any way, perhaps assuming the logic to be self-evident. However, we can identify a few fundamental flaws in the underlying argument that should suffice to set the record straight.
The first point that needs to be made is that Suu Kyi does not dictate the Burma policy of Western countries. Although the issue of sanctions is often linked to her fate, that does not mean she is the main impetus behind the policy. When US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently said that the US might be ready to invest in Burma if Suu Kyi was released, she did so at her own discretion, not in consultation with the detained democracy leader. Conversely, if Suu Kyi suddenly reversed her position on sanctions, there is no reason to believe that Western governments would automatically follow suit. To imply that she is somehow responsible for decisions made in foreign capitals is, therefore, grossly unfair.
It is also a distortion of the facts to suggest that sanctions are the cause of Burma’s endemic poverty. A total absence of accountable governance—not a lack of international aid or investment—is the real reason this resource-rich nation can barely support its own population. The junta has never had any difficulty in finding foreign partners willing to help it exploit Burma’s natural wealth. But most of the plunder from this wholesale theft of the country’s riches is deposited in overseas bank accounts or in bunkers in Naypyidaw; virtually none of it is plowed back into the local economy for the benefit of the country’s long-term development.
It is true, as The Economist notes, that official aid to Burma falls far short of what the country needs. Again, this is because most international donors don’t trust the regime to use aid appropriately or cooperate fully with the agencies that dispense it, not because they feel obliged to support the country’s pro-democracy leader. Even if Suu Kyi were completely removed from the equation—as some junta apologists and exasperated pseudo-pragmatists have long argued she should be—it would not alter the fact that, even post-Nargis, the regime does more to obstruct aid than facilitate it.
The fact that the regime has tightened the screws on the opposition at the very moment that the world wants to increase its aid to Burma shows that the generals are only interested in using the suffering of ordinary Burmese to their own advantage. In effect, they are telling the international community to make a choice: save Suu Kyi, or save the rest of the country. Suu Kyi herself would not hesitate to recommend the latter, if it were a meaningful choice. But it is not, because eliminating her as a political force would bring no tangible benefit to anyone but the generals.
The Economist is probably not, like some, hell bent on discrediting Suu Kyi. But it does subscribe to certain views that make it susceptible to the arguments of those who are. One of its most cherished ideas is that economic development is a force for political good. And so it asks if “the courageous Lady” will admit that “[d]evelopment ... could be the fastest path to democracy.”
Never mind that the experiences of China and Vietnam, two countries mentioned as possible models for Burma, do not support this claim at all.