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Myanmar's pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi (CHAIWAT SUBPRASOM)
Myanmar's pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi (CHAIWAT SUBPRASOM)

The case against Myanmar sanctions Add to ...

Were the trial of the world's most poignant embodiment of peaceful resistance not so real, Aung San Suu Kyi's recent misfortunes could have sprung from the pages of a novel.

A diabetic Vietnam veteran swims across a lake in the dead of night, eludes the guards watching over a nation's long-imprisoned leader and spends the night in her mansion, only to be plucked from the water in mid-escape the next evening and sent to prison along with "the Lady."

Ms. Suu Kyi's interminable house arrest over 13 of the past 19 years was supposed to expire at the end of May, in time for yesterday, her 64th birthday. Instead, the democracy advocate - who was elected president of Myanmar (formerly Burma) in a landslide 1990 vote, but never permitted to take office by the ruling junta - stands charged with breaking the terms of her detention, in a trial that will resume on Friday after being suspended last month.

Her sentence seems a forgone conclusion: five more years in jail.

Equally predictable, though, has been the international community's corresponding verdict: further isolation for Myanmar, a fate parallel to that suffered by its heroine.

Yesterday in Brussels, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced that European Union nations had agreed to mark Ms. Suu Kyi's birthday by stepping up sanctions against Myanmar. He called for her "immediate, unconditional release," and described her trial as "absurd and contemptible."

The United States has already extended its sanctions, after the Obama administration briefly contemplated a more moderate approach, like the strategy of engagement that it has been advocating for Iran. Kurt Campbell, the incoming top U.S. diplomat to East Asia, said last week that Ms. Suu Kyi's rearrest "makes it very difficult to move forward" with that goal.

And Ms. Suu Kyi would be the first to ask him not to. She has led the call for sanctions, maintaining that engagement with Myanmar's generals can only strengthen them. Turn the screws of hardship tight enough, the argument goes, and eventually the oppressors will either back down or be overthrown by their victims.

With her integrity and sacrifice, she has won virtually every Western government, including Canada's, over to her logic. In April, Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier boasted of imposing "the toughest sanctions in the world" on Myanmar.

But something few people discuss in public is that the Nobel Peace Prize laureate's high-minded politics are increasingly out of touch with the more pragmatic approach of many relief workers in her country. Their view of sanctions has been tempered by experience over the two decades since Ms. Suu Kyi was first locked away.

Not only is the regime's grip on power as strong as ever, they say, but the net of sanctions meant to squeeze the junta has expanded to snare humanitarian aid as well, depriving innocent citizens of crucial assistance.

To the doctors caring for a burgeoning population of people with AIDS, or the development workers struggling to build schools in the country's numerous conflict zones, the most relevant statistic about Myanmar is not its rank as the second-most-corrupt nation in the world, but the amount of foreign aid it receives - $3 a head, about a 20th of the amount sent to Laos or Sudan.

Sanctions on any intransigent dictatorship are meant to be selective.

Canada's Foreign Affairs Department explicitly notes "certain humanitarian exemptions" to the ban on goods and services moving between the two countries. If you want to send medical supplies or money via the Red Cross, for instance, you can - though you'll need a special permit.

Don't expect to get any logistical help from the Canadian embassy in Myanmar, because there isn't one. This reflects the government's own choice - legislated or otherwise - to avoid the moral labyrinth of delivering aid into tyranny.

A rare exception occurred after Cyclone Nargis decimated Myanmar's Irrawaddy Delta last spring. As part of the global outpouring that followed, the Canadian International Development Agency sent a one-time, $26-million package of emergency relief. But despite desperate appeals from the United Nations and other agencies still working there, we've not sent a penny since.

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