Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi delivers strong message about Myanmar’s reform process at event organized by IU

INDIANAPOLIS — Close to 150 people — many of them Burmese expatriates living in the Midwest — gathered today at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis to discuss constitutional reform and economic development in Myanmar.

As history and even recent events would suggest, both are complex issues for the Southeast Asian country, which since becoming an independent country in 1948 has experienced ethnic strife and civil conflict.

For more than 50 years, Burma — renamed Myanmar in 1989 — was closed off from the West due to rule by a military regime that was responsible for alleged human rights violations.

Aung San Suu Kyi, center

Aung San Suu Kyi, center

Among the presenters at the U.S.-Myanmar Engagement Conference, held at the IUPUI Campus Center, was Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent many years under house arrest for defying Myanmar’s military junta.

Today, Suu Kyi serves in the lower house of the nation’s parliament and is preparing for national elections this fall. As leader of the National League for Democracy, she hopes to run for the presidency at that time.

The Oxford-trained democracy fighter spoke for about nine minutes via a video message she sent to the organizers of the conference.

Among those attending the conference was U Kyaw Tin, permanent United Nations representative of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, who also spoke.

The Center for International Business Education and Research, part of Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, and the Center for Constitutional Democracy in the IU Maurer School of Law co-hosted the conference with the Burmese American Community Institute. Also participating was IU’s Pan Asia Institute.

Calls for further democratic reforms ahead of 2015 elections

“It is always a pleasure for me to address fellow Burmese overseas, because although they are no longer living in our country, I feel very much they’re still a part of us and that they would like to do everything they can — not just to maintain their ties with our country but to help us to develop in the best possible way,” Suu Kyi said during her introduction.

“We are now at an important point in the history of our country. The next few months will decide whether we’re going forward to democratic governance and genuine economic development, or whether we’re going to stagnate in a façade of democratic rule that is in fact not much better than an authoritarian administration.”

Suu Kyi addressed a number of critically important issues, particularly the need for constitutional reform as part of fundamental and shared policy.

“We have always put a lot of emphasis on political development because that has been lacking sadly in our country for the last few decades. And because of the lack of political development, we have not been able to develop economically either,” she said. “I think that good, sound, honest politics lies at the foundation of good, sound economy.”

If Myanmar does not have rule of law or a government that is transparent and accountable, which “manages to gain the confidence of the people,” it will never fully benefit its citizens, she said.

Suu Kyi disagreed with those who like to measure progress by overall economic growth and questioned the benefits of reforms offered by the present government. Development has to mean a better life for the great majority of the Burmese people and “not just for a small, privileged elite.”

“I fear that this is where we seem to be headed at the moment,” she said. “All the economic reforms that some people have tried to focus on have done more to help the already privileged, rather than to help those who are suffering from poverty, who are suffering from the ill effects of an authoritarian regime that was in place in our country for half a century.”

From 1962 to 2011, the country was ruled by the military, and in 2008 a new constitution was put in place. Although it allowed for more public participation, a quarter of seats in all parliaments — including state and regional legislatures — were reserved for the military. Serving generals hold three key national ministry posts.

The conference took place at IUPUI.

The conference took place at IUPUI.

Suu Kyi called for further, more democratic constitutional reforms before this fall’s national elections.

“If we have to start with reform anywhere, it should be with constitutional reform,” she said. “The 2008 constitution, under which the elections of 2010 were held and under which the elections of this year are going to be held too, was not drawn up with a practicing democracy in mind.

“It was drawn up with the intention of preserving the status quo as far as possible, while making the minimum concession to the democratic demands. Because of that, our people under this constitution are not in a position to exercise full authority over the government.”

She expressed doubts for meaningful reform as long as the military maintains its control over the process.

“They have the right of veto over amendments to essential parts of the constitution. If the elections this year are to be free and fair, the constitution has to be amended in a way that will give the people full right to choose the kind of government they wish to see in their country,” Suu Kyi said.

Economic reforms can happen only with free and fair elections

“Economic reforms can be fair, only if the elections this year are free and fair. ‘Free’ and ‘fair’ are two very short and very simple words, but they cover adequately all that we need for our elections; not just free elections but fair elections, which means a level playing ground, which means a constitution that will allow our people to choose the kind of representatives they want — freely and without intervention from any privileged group.”

She also noted that the results of the 2015 elections and the will of the people “must be respected” and “implemented.” If these conditions are met, she said, economic development that will benefit everyone — including Burmese Americans who invest in their native country — should follow.

“Investments can be safe only if there is stability and peace within a country,” she reminded the audience.

Some in the audience had hoped that Suu Kyi would say more about the National League for Democracy’s forthcoming economic policy paper in advance of the fall election. But she did offer assurances about contracts signed by U.S. investors with the current government.

“Concerns have been expressed that an NLD government would not honor contracts signed with this present government. I would like to make it quite clear that the NLD believes in the rule of law and all contracts that have been signed in the right way and in accordance with best practices will be honored,” she said.

“We do not want people to feel insecure in Burma. Our people must first feel secure and all those who are participating in the development process of our country — whether they be businessmen, whether they simply be friends of Burma — I want all of them also to feel secure.”

Myanmar’s U.N. ambassador also speaks

Following Suu Kyi’s remarks, U Kyaw Tin, permanent United Nations representative of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, the morning’s keynote speaker, reviewed his country’s recent history of engagement with the United States.

U Kyaw Tin

U Kyaw Tin

Tin said that since 2011 his country has “peacefully shifted” from a military government and embraced a multiparty system.

“It would be wrong to argue that nothing has changed in Myanmar or that there are signs of backsliding. Myanmar has reached to the point of no return. There will be no turning back,” he said. “The truth is Myanmar is traveling on the path to democratic transition, confronting inevitable challenges.

“There are some remaining human rights challenges,” he said. “As a government, Myanmar is fully committed to move on with the democratization process. We feel that U.S. policy should continue to focus on fully supporting Myanmar’s effort for transition to ensure sustainability in the run-up to the fall election and beyond.

After saying that his country has successfully made “many successful benchmarks in a very short time,” Tin acknowledged that reforms for greater freedoms of the press, assembly and association remain.

“Some observers still question us, ‘are the reforms real?’ … The scope and pace of Myanmar’s transformation was viewed very differently by different observers, who have different interests. Some say too slow; some say too fast,” he said. “If you compare with our own recent past, the changes that you see are amazingly fast.

“Myanmar needs time to adjust to new policies, new freedoms,” he added.

Elaisa Vahnie, executive director of the Burmese American Community Institute, who left Myanmar when he was 20, said he sees an opportunity to move forward as a result of initiatives by President Thein Sein.

“We must move forward to a solution of national reconciliation and sustained peace,” said Vahnie, an IU alumnus. “To be able to do so, it is important for us to engage, contribute and effect positively to the ongoing ceasefire negotiations as part of the peace process — the proposed political dialogue and particularly the need for constitutional reform and the 2015 elections as they are critically important to the future of the people of Burma.”

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