Tuesday, June 1, 2010
• Posted: Tuesday, May 19, 2009 8:00am By Kerry Howley
The first time John Yettaw, a 53-year-old father of five from Missouri, arrived dripping wet at the back door of Myanmar’s most famous political prisoner, he was turned away before even catching a glimpse of Aung San Suu Kyi. But the kind of man who travels halfway around the world to strap on flippers and swim up to the home of a heavily guarded 63-year-old woman is not the kind of man who gives up easily. On Yettaw’s second try in early May, Suu Kyi let him stay the night, apparently in defiance of the terms of her house arrest. In provoking Myanmar’s ruling junta, Yettaw may have extended Suu Kyi’s period of confinement indefinitely. If so, it won’t be the first time that America’s obsession with “the lady,” as she is called in Myanmar, has had unfortunate consequences.
Suu Kyi, a prisoner in her own home for most of the past two decades, is a hero of almost unfathomable courage. She is also a problem. The pro-democracy strategy she has chosen—isolating the ruling regime into submission—has yielded next to nothing in concessions from the Burmese junta. Every time the regime makes a boneheaded decision, democracy activists, claiming to have Suu Kyi’s support, press the United States and Europe for still further isolation of Myanmar in the form of travel bans, boycotts of businesses that engage with Burmese civilians, and aid restrictions. Congress kicks into Burma mode, and churns out the same indignant display of impotence: more sanctions, more travel restrictions, and more resolutions in support of Suu Kyi. Activists looking to raise awareness tell the incredible story of a demure woman staring down armed thugs. With a tale that powerful, it’s easy to forget the millions of Burmese who slowly, silently suffer under aid restrictions and economic sanctions.
The story is much bigger than the woman it stars. And so to Westerners who work inside of Myanmar, amidst the 48 million Burmese who are not international celebrities, the American cult of Suu Kyi can seem like remote, self-referential performance art. (I was an editor of the Myanmar Times from 2003 to 2005 and was refused entry to the country last December.) Suu Kyi’s list of vocal supporters includes Laura Bush, Jim Carrey, Sylvester Stallone, and hundreds of placard-wielding college kids around the country. The Nobel Peace Prize Laureate is inevitably described as “petite,” “well-spoken,” and most of all “elegant.” “She is like a beautiful flower,” John McCain told Brian Lamb in 2004. There are candlelight vigils in Dallas and protest rallies in Toronto. There is the claim that the National League for Democracy, Suu Kyi’s erstwhile party, is a vital force rather than the tired circle of septuagenarians one actually encounters at its Yangon headquarters. On Facebook, one can send a form e-mail to Than Shwe, a dictator who lives in paranoid isolation, requesting that he stop oppressing his fellow Burmese and concluding with “I look forward to hearing from you.”
And meanwhile, the junta grinds along, by all appearances at least as strong and intransigent as it was the day its leaders decided they didn’t like the outcome of Burma’s 1990 election. For most activists in the United States and Europe, the regime’s persistence justifies precisely the policy changes Suu Kyi has sought for decades. No progress is possible without democratic reform, and any attempt at long-term economic betterment will only serve to buttress the forces of evil. But if you’re willing to think beyond isolationist policies, the junta’s survival just demonstrates the abysmal failure of sanctions, disinvestment, and aid restrictions. Humanitarian aid to Burma is one twentieth of what one would expect for a country of its poverty level. Nongovernmental organizations working in the area say the people of Myanmar could benefit from long-term development aid, if only isolationists would stop resisting on political grounds.
The two sides don’t neatly divide. No one believes the Myanmar government should be handed fistfuls of aid, and most people agree that strictly life-saving humanitarian assistance (as opposed to, say, long-term agricultural aid) is permissible. But over the past few years, humanitarian groups operating within Myanmar have voiced their frustration with those who believe that outsiders should wait on the sidelines as the Burmese economy implodes.
Joel Charny, the vice president of Washington-based Refugees International, has publicly accused pro-democracy groups of spreading misinformation, holding “rigid and doctrinal” views, and tailoring their campaigns to elites living outside of Myanmar. “There is just one overarching narrative,” he writes on his blog, “the struggle of the Burmese democracy movement, led by Nobel Peace Laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, against the repressive Burmese generals.” A 2008 report from the International Crisis Group complains that “for the past 20 years, international aid to Myanmar has been held hostage to politics.” The group believes that import bans and isolation have only entrenched the junta, both by alienating reform-minded members of the military and impoverishing Burmese who might otherwise be selling T-shirts, carp, and rice to the outside world. Others have accused sanctions of destroying the garment trade and forcing former factory workers into prostitution.
The response to Cyclone Nargis, the deadliest disaster in Myanmar’s recorded history, is instructive as a moment in which the democracy agenda threatened to worsen a humanitarian disaster. In the wake of the May 2008 storm, Myanmar officials were afraid of losing face and suspicious of foreign help. They responded reprehensibly—by blocking aid shipments, insisting on sclerotic bureaucratic procedure, and letting people go hungry as boxes of biscuits waited just outside the border. “The Myanmar People are not beggars,” insisted a telling headline in the state-run New Light of Myanmar. Coaxing officials to relent was a task that required diplomatic sensitivity both to the Myanmar’s government’s fear of American invasion and the fragile pride of its top officials.
As the vast majority of the workers trying to talk their way into the country would tell you, this was not the time to push for regime change. Yet Laura Bush chose this moment to march over to the White House briefing room and declare the incident “the most recent example of the junta’s failure to meet its people’s basic needs.” Not to be outdone, Congress took the opportunity to offer Suu Kyi a congressional medal of honor. Rep. Tom Lantos, a democrat from California, followed up by introducing further sanctions on the Burmese gem trade. According to the International Crisis Group, this “megaphone diplomacy” further complicated the process of saving lives.
Myanmar’s government is an opaque bureaucratic anachronism completely out of touch with the modern world. But the West’s vision of Myanmar also seems stuck, trapped in that brief moment, now many years past, when regime change seemed just around the corner and a democratic leader stood ready to take charge. While life in Burma continues, outsiders seem to relive the day of Suu Kyi’s imprisonment in endless loops. We hold candlelight vigils; we wash up on Suu Kyi’s doorstep. And in replaying her heroics, we forget that there is more to Myanmar than a single, extraordinary woman.
Kerry Howley is a contributing editor at Reason Magazine and an Arts Fellow at the University of Iowa’s literary nonfiction program.