Burma's NLD in Disarray

Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy, of which she is the spiritual leader, appear in disarray about whether to continue to urge western governments to maintain their sanctions against the regime in Burma.

The Nobel Prize-winning opposition icon amazed Burma watchers by calling on members of the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos to provide investment in technology and infrastructure. In a recorded audio address to the captains of western capitalism she suggested that investment was needed and welcome provided that it took account of the rights of workers and of social and environmental issues.

Shortly before the Davos address, however, in a long interview with the Financial Times she appeared to be sitting on the sanctions fence, encouraging tourism but only so long as it did not benefit the generals – a curious position given that few tourist have any way of knowing who owns what hotel or gets a cut of the taxi business.

To many the Davos address seemed a major departure from Suu Kyi's years of insistence on the merits of economic and personnel sanctions as a means of bringing about political change and of denying the military rulers and their cronies of some of the fruits of oppression and corruption. It prompted attacks on her in the columns of The Irrawaddy, the Thailand based voice of Burmese exiles.

Western governments have long had misgivings about the sanctions given that China, Thailand, India, Korea and other countries with significant economic interests there declined to take part. But such is the esteem in which Aung San Suu Kyi is held that western governments have been loath to abandon sanctions so long as she supported them.

But has she and the NLD actually changed their stance? Since the Davos meeting some NLD sources have been quoted by Irrawaddy as saying that she wants to maintain economic sanctions. But elsewhere it has been reported that the NLD wants talks with western governments to discuss the future of sanctions.

Reading between the lines, it appears that the NLD is drifting, unsurely, to a position of urging the maintenance of existing sanctions on generals and other key regime personnel while backing off from insisting on trade and investment boycotts. But shifting policy is never easy and Aung San Suu Kyi has to steer a course between offending her hard line loyalists and attracting back the support of those who feel that she has been overly stubborn and inflexible, focused on constitutional more than livelihood issues.

The logic of sanctions has been that it was the one card the NLD, and the western governments, held in their efforts to induce the Than Shwe regime to soften its stance towards her and begin a dialogue with the opposition. Some credit sanctions with her release from house arrest and hoped that in conjunction with the US willingness to engage with the regime would ultimately result in more progress.

However, by staging the November "elections" the regime appears to have out-manouvered the NLD whose refusal to take part in the show lead to breakaways and considerable dissatisfaction. Many opposition-inclined people who felt that the electoral process and new constitution, however flawed, provided a small wedge which might lead to wider political change. It has also proved difficult to sustain the argument that sanctions sanctions were hurting the generals not the populace given the ease with which the former were able to get rich through the gems, timber, gas and drugs trade with the immediate neighbors.

The argument is gaining ground among many NLS supporters, though not necessarily the leadership, that the more western tourism and investment the better, which will not only help the economy but, more importantly, increase access to the outside world and ideas of free flow of both information and trade.

Western government meanwhile are all to conscious of their own lack of leverage over the regime and sense that their own strategic and economic interests would be better served by offering an alternative source of investment. Even the regime itself may be concerned about over reliance on China, and particularly the dominant role of Chinese traders in Mandalay and the northeast.

A permanent and significant policy shift by the NLD may also to wait to see whether the new government in Naypiydaw shows signs of conducting more rational economic policies than hitherto and of genuinely welcoming foreign investment from sources less inclined to do cosy deals with the generals and their business surrogates. Nothing will happen quickly if only because the generals are xenophobic and particularly anti-western, and they despise Aung San Suu Kyi even more than she despises them.

But the bottom line is that the NLD is shifting reluctantly and, some say belatedly, to take account of local and foreign political realities.