On November 15, 2010, two days after Suu Kyi came out of seven and a half years of detention, she told an interviewer that the U.S. and the international community at large to show greater flexibility on sanctions, while at the same time insisting that she had “never come across ordinary Burmese saying that sanctions are hurting them.”
If Bush’s policies were hotly debated when they seemed to yield few positive results, they seem particularly far-sighted in the current context of Burma’s recent reforms.
Myint Aung, a member of a former political prisoners group in Rangoon (not to be confused with Myint Aye, a prominent political prisoner released today), says this pressure has been particularly influential as Thein Sein has released a wave of political detainees since taking office in March last year, including at least 44 more today.
“The U.S. has been an influence because the government needs to get sanctions totally removed,” he said welcoming the latest releases while accusing the government of using these prisoners of conscience like “pawns.”
With an estimated 200-plus political prisoners still behind bars, fighting continuing in northern Kachin State and violence its worst in years in Western Rakhine, Obama and Thein Sein noted that there is still much work to be done.
“During our discussions we … reached agreement for the development of democracy in Burma and for promotion of human rights to be aligned with international standards,” said Thein Sein after their meeting.
Whether Burma reaches that goal or not should become clear well before the end of Obama’s second term in office in January 2017. A crucial general election between Thein Sein’s party and Suu Kyi is due in exactly three years’ time.
“I don’t think anybody is under the illusion that Burma’s arrived, that they’re where they need to be,” Obama said in Bangkok before heading to Burma amid criticisms he headed there too soon. “On the other hand, if we waited to engage until they had achieved a perfect democracy my suspicion is we’d be waiting an awful long time.”
Steve Finch is a freelance journalist based in Bangkok. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Foreign Policy, TIME, The Independent, Toronto Star and Bangkok Post among others.