Burma: E.U. Suspends Sanctions, but a Political Impasse Threatens Progress

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Soe Than Win / AFP / Getty Images

Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma's opposition leader, attends a meeting at the NLD headquarters in Rangoon on April 19, 2012

Citing “historic changes,” the European Union on Monday announced it would suspend nearly all sanctions on Burma for a year. The new policy, which goes into effect this week, will ease trade, economic and personal restrictions, but it leaves in place an arms embargo, reports the Associated Press. It will also open the door to increased development aid. E.U. officials said the move was a reward for the country’s recent steps toward reform, including the release of many political prisoners, cease-fires with ethnic rebels and the April 1 by-elections that saw democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi win a seat in parliament. “The E.U. praises the peaceful nature of the process and the readiness of the parties to work toward the same goals,” the organization said in a statement released from Luxembourg. But in Burma today, talk of unity felt premature.

The E.U.’s decision comes as the military-backed ruling party and Suu Kyi’s opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) are locked in a high-stakes political showdown. Monday was supposed to be the Nobel laureate’s parliamentary debut, but she and 42 other opposition politicians boycotted the session over concerns about the wording of a clause in the army-written constitution. The current oath of office requires parliamentarians to pledge to “safeguard” or “uphold and abide” the constitution, depending on the translation. The NLD wants the word changed to respect. From Japan, where he is on a state visit, President Thein Sein blamed the setback on Suu Kyi. “Ms. Suu Kyi needs to decide whether she wants to enter parliament or not,” he told the press. He did not, however, appear to rule out a change in language. “It is possible to make a revision if it serves the public’s interest,” he said.

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The impasse points to the fragility — and complexity — of Burma’s current political moment. For most of the past 50 years, the country has languished under military rule. The cadres that seized power in 1962 ceded power to a quasi-civilian government last year, but the armed forces are still inordinately powerful. The President is a former general and the 2008 constitution reserves 25% of seats in parliament for unelected members of the military. On the campaign trail, Suu Kyi and the NLD vowed to amend the constitution — and it seems they hope to start with the oath. “We want them to change the wording because it will show people that the 2008 constitution can be changed,” Phyo Min Thein, a newly elected lawmaker, told the Irrawaddy. “That’s the point.”

But many wonder if the NLD missed the point by taking the government to task on this particular issue, at this particular time. In an essay for Foreign Policy’s Transitions, exiled Burmese writer Min Zin argued that the boycott is a “strategic blunder” that may hurt, not help, the cause of reform. The difference between vowing to “uphold and abide” the constitution and promising to “respect” the constitution is largely a question of semantics, he said. Plus, he argued, the current wording of the 2008 constitution does not preclude amendment. The government recently revised the party-registration law to allow Suu Kyi and fellow NLD candidates to run. “By participating in the election, Aung San Suu Kyi chose to play by the regime’s rules,” he wrote. “Now she needs to pick her battles rather than wasting valuable energy in a fight over symbolism.”

(PHOTOS: Freedom for Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi)

The opposition may indeed have quite a fight on their hands. Although they appear to have a powerful ally in reform-minded Thein Sein, the boycott will make them no friends among hard-liners still smarting from the April 1 polls. Plenty of people in parliament will be pleased to see the upstart opposition sidelined so soon. Which raises the question of whether or not Suu Kyi should back down from the boycott. Min Zin, the exiled writer, seems to think so: “If you choose to live like a bug inside a chili pepper, you can’t really complain if you start feeling hot,” he concluded, citing a Burmese proverb. Perhaps, but the opposition need not stay silent, nor play by the regime’s rules. This may be a matter of speaking softly — at least until things cool down.

Emily Rauhala is an associate editor at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @emilyrauhala