February 8, 2011 / 5:23 AM / 9 years ago

Suu Kyi's party seeks talks with West on sanctions

YANGON (Reuters) - Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s party said on Tuesday it supported sanctions on Myanmar but wanted talks with Western nations on whether to modify them, signalling a willingness to discuss a more flexible approach.

Myanmar's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi speaks with youths at the National League for Democracy (NLD) head office in Yangon February 8, 2011. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

The National League for Democracy, which has long supported sanctions to pressure the military government, also suggested that responsible investment guidelines could be agreed that would ease hardship in impoverished but resource-rich Myanmar.

But it restated its insistence that the release of Myanmar’s estimated 2,100 political prisoners is a “critical requirement” to end punitive measures.

“The NLD calls for discussions with the United States, the European Union, Canada and Australia with a view to reaching agreement on when, how and under what circumstances sanctions might be modified in the interests of democracy, human rights and a healthy economic environment,” the party statement said.

The statement comes a day after NLD vice-chairman Tin Oo told Reuters that the pro-democracy party recommended maintaining Western sanctions on the country, where investment from China and other Asian countries has been accelerating.

“They’re being more flexible and trying to work themselves into a position for negotiation,” said Derek Tonkin, a Myanmar analyst and former British ambassador to Thailand.

“It’s certainly a very good political statement, with some very reasonable points and a very coherent defence of sanctions. It’s designed to attract attention.”

Analysts say the NLD’s focus on sanctions is also an effort to remain relevant in Myanmar’s fast-changing political landscape. Despite its huge popularity, the NLD has no stake in the new army-dominated political system having boycotted a November7 election, leading it its dissolution.

Suu Kyi’s has sizable influence over the international community and sanctions is the only real bargaining chip she has with the generals — assuming they want the restrictions lifted.

The junta has not responded to Suu Kyi’s repeated calls for dialogue and some experts say there is little incentive for them to change when isolation keeps them wealthy and powerful.

China, Thailand, India and Singapore are already big investors in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. Chinese companies poured in more than $8 billion last year, mostly in energy-related projects, according to official Myanmar data.

The former British colony was one of Southeast Asia’s wealthiest and most promising nations just over 50 years ago, the world’s biggest rice exporter and major energy producer.

WEALTHY REGIME

The country’s proven gas reserves doubled in the past decade to 570 billion cubic metres, equivalent to almost a fifth of Australia’s, according to the BP Statistical Review. Revenues from those reserves are tightly held among the ruling military elite whose cronies dominate other businesses.

That raises the question of whether the real power holders in Myanmar would benefit from Western investment, which would require greater transparency. The generals have sharply criticised sanctions, but have not asked for them to be lifted.

Suu Kyi, who was released from house arrest on November 13, has long been a backer of strict sanctions, leading to criticism from some fellow pro-democracy activists that she was too inflexible on the issue.

Many experts say sanctions have failed because the regime’s wealth has swelled as a result of trade and energy deals with China and Thailand. Myanmar has recently sought to cosy up to other Asian countries, saying the “unfavourable Western sanctions” leave lucrative investment opportunities.

A spokeswoman for EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said Myanmar would be on the agenda for a meeting of EU heads of state in April.

Myanmar's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi (C) arrives at her office at the front of the National League for Democracy (NLD) head office in Yangon February 8, 2011. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

“What I can say is that obviously we are in a listening mode,” Maja Kocijancic said when asked if the EU would consider softening sanctions on Myanmar. “We are consulting all relevant stakeholders and once this issue comes on the Council agenda, we will see what decision there will be on the way forward.”

Soon after her release, Suu Kyi indicated she might recommend the lifting of the embargoes, which prompted a flurry of diplomatic activity and attracted wide attention in the West.

Experts suggest Suu Kyi might act as a mediator between the West and the reclusive generals towards easing the sanctions in return for concrete reforms in the country of 50 million people, about a third of whom live beneath the poverty line.

Additional reporting by Luke Baker in Brussels; Writing by Jason Szep; Editing by Martin Petty and Andrew Marshall

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