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Suu Kyi's U.S. visit may lead to more easing of sanctions on Myanmar

September 17, 2012 |  7:11 am

 
This post has been updated. See the note below.

NEW DELHI -- Democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi’s first trip to the U.S. in decades starting Monday could prompt a further easing of U.S. economic sanctions against Myanmar, analysts said, although the visit will mainly serve as a victory lap for the demure figure celebrated by Republicans and Democrats alike.

During her six-stop, near three-week trip, the Nobel laureate is expected to meet with President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and receive the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest U.S. civilian award. She also may spend a night in the White House and be feted at a dinner in her honor attended by former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton as well as Microsoft head Bill Gates.

The Obama administration is keen to highlight her visit as a foreign policy success in an election year, analysts added, given her role in pushing the long-isolated pariah state also known as Burma to open its doors, legalize protest, ease media restrictions and release hundreds of political prisoners.

“It should be quite a good visit for Obama,” said Sean Turnell, editor of the Burma Economic Watch website and a professor at Australia’s Macquarie University. “Burma policy, it’s one little corner of the world getting a little bit better on his watch.”

Suu Kyi’s visit overlaps with a three-day trip by Burmese President Thein Sein to the United Nations, although there’s a danger she’ll upstage him despite his work pushing through reforms and extending a hand to Suu Kyi.

Most economic sanctions against Myanmar have been eased, leaving in place still a 2003 U.S. import ban and various restrictions on visas and bank transactions affecting Burmese generals and others linked to human rights abuses.

Analysts said there’s a good chance the Obama administration will call for an end to the import ban -- perhaps premised on the release of all remaining political prisoners -- during Suu Kyi’s visit but leave in place the restrictions against individuals. Any permanent repeal of the import ban, however, must go through Congress.

[Updated Sept. 17, 8:14 a.m.: Differences remain over the number of political prisoners still held, in part due to record-keeping errors, spelling discrepancies and even the definition of what constitutes a political prisoner. Suu Kyi's party has estimated that some 330 of the about 2,000 such detainees originally held remain in jail, while other activists say there still may be more than 400 imprisoned.

On Monday, Myanmar’s government said it had granted amnesty to 514 prisoners on humanitarian grounds, the Associated Press reported, though it was unclear if any of them were political detainees.]

Suu Kyi, 67, recently elected to parliament after nearly two decades under house arrest, is expected to discuss the Rohingya refugee crisis during meetings with U.S. officials. Dozens of people have died and thousands displaced in clashes since June between this stateless, mostly Muslim community and Burma’s Buddhist majority.

Suu Kyi has been criticized for not speaking out more forcefully on the Rohingya issue. Last week the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama told students in India that he had written to Suu Kyi about the Rohingya but never received a response.

“She has been far too noncommittal,” said Benjamin Zawacki, an independent analyst based in Bangkok, Thailand. “The U.N. and U.S. stages would be the perfect fora for taking a strong human rights position on these issues.”

Behind her relatively weak stance may be a political calculation that she can fight only so many battles concurrently against Burma’s old guard, said Alana Golmei, coordinator with India’s Burma Center Delhi, an advocacy group.

Another likely issue for discussion is the Myanmar government’s relations toward the ethic Kuchin minority. The state’s longstanding conflict with the Kuchin has been pushed out of the spotlight by the Rohingya crisis, said Golmei, spurring fears among Kuchin leaders that their concerns are being sidelined.

Suu Kyi is also expected to discuss Myanmar’s relations with China at a time when the Obama administration has bolstered relations with nations on China’s periphery and called for free movement of shipping around Southeast Asia’s disputed Spratly islands, which China claims.

“The Burmese have no option but to be dependent on China,” said Baladas Ghoshal, a professor with New Delhi’s Institute of Peace and Conflict. “But they realize that China is a taker, not a giver. They can’t refuse contact, but they want to reduce it.”

While some believe Thein Sein has felt upstaged by Suu Kyi, both share a desire to see Burma emerge from isolation, analysts said.

“She’s gone out of her way to be quite constructive in parliament,” said Turnell. “And let’s face it, if it weren’t for her, Burma wouldn’t be on anyone’s radar.”

In addition to her stop in Washington, Suu Kyi is expected to visit New York; Louisville, Kentucky; Fort Wayne, Ind.; San Francisco and Los Angeles. She is expected to meet with Burmese diaspora groups, give speeches and receive awards from the Atlantic Council think tank and the Asia Society.

Suu Kyi is also expected to address the United Nations General Assembly and may ring the bell that launches daily trading at the New York Stock Exchange. She worked at the U.N. from 1969 to 1971 after graduating from Britain’s Oxford University.

Analysts now see less risk of reform backsliding completely in Burma as change becomes steadily more entrenched. Perhaps a greater risk is that oligarchs and cronies linked to the military regime will monopolize the economy moving forward.

“Broadly, economic reform is proceeding,” said Turnell. “There are sometimes blind alleys, but it’s still moving in the right direction.”

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-- Mark Magnier

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