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Devotees pray at Myanmar's holiest Buddhist site, the Shweddagon Pagoda in Rangoon. (Adam Dean for The Globe and Mail/Adam Dean for The Globe and Mail)
Devotees pray at Myanmar's holiest Buddhist site, the Shweddagon Pagoda in Rangoon. (Adam Dean for The Globe and Mail/Adam Dean for The Globe and Mail)

Mark MacKinnon

Myanmar: Where the generals play and the people pay Add to ...

Most analysts believe the 78-year-old Gen. Than Shwe implemented the changes primarily not because of outside pressure but to protect himself and his cronies from persecution by military rivals if and when he retires as commander-in-chief.

Yet, whatever the motives, the few opposition representatives in the new Parliament are taking their new roles seriously, studying up on parliamentary procedure and planning to flood the session with motions and proposed new laws.

Gen. Than Shwe may still be the top authority in the new "democratic" Myanmar, but even his own edicts now must be formally debated before they become law.

"For 20 years, there was only the government, the United Nations and a few NGOs here. But now there is much more. There are political parties and 15 [federal and regional]parliaments. There are more people on the stage. Civil society is more independent," says Khin Zaw Win, a veteran pro-democracy activist who has spent 11 years in jail, including time in the notorious Insein Prison outside Rangoon.

"It's like someone took the board game and threw all the pieces in the air."

After the 1988 military crackdown and the stolen election of 1990, he supported sanctions. But two decades on, Mr. Khin Zaw Win now wonders whether more effort should be made to minimize the harm being done to ordinary citizens.

"Twenty years of sanctions have just driven Burma deeper into the embrace of China and cut Burmese off from the West. We don't have access to capital, technology or even things like scholarships or [academic]visits. More tourists should come. That's the thing we should start with - exchanges. … Let's start by lifting the tourism ban."

There are signs of that already happening, even without a signal from Washington or Ms. Suu Kyi. Myanmar received a record 295,000 tourists last year (most of them from Europe), a 30-per-cent rise over the previous year, and the record is expected to be broken again in 2011.

The bottom line? It's not over till the Lady says it's over

It was Ms. Suu Kyi's stolen election victory that inspired the original sanctions against Myanmar. In many ways only she can lift them. But the 65-year-old laureate, currently recovering from a recent bout of ill health, could surely do that with a single speech.

And in recent months she has quietly inched closer to doing that, although she will not do so explicitly or without a long list of caveats.

In an audio address to the World Economic Forum in Davos last month, Ms. Suu Kyi said her country had been "left behind" and added, "I would like to appeal to all those present ... to promote national reconciliation, genuine democratization, human development and economic growth in Burma," she said.

But she added that any potential investors needed to "put a premium on respect for the law."

Afterward, the NLD released the results of its own investigation into the effectiveness of sanctions, which came to the conclusion they were still justified and needed.

However, the party said it wanted to hold "discussions" with Canada, the U.S., the EU and Australia regarding "how and under what circumstances sanctions might be modified in the interests of democracy, human rights and a healthy economic environment."

Few expect Ms. Suu Kyi to back down all the way. Lifting sanctions outright would not only give away what little leverage she and her allies in the West have over the junta, it would also involve a massive mea culpa by a woman who is famously stubborn in her convictions.

But some of her allies see room for a subtler shift.

"The rich are losing millions of dollars - the poor are losing a dollar a day. But for these poor people, it's their lives," says Myo Yan Nang Thein, an NLD member, former political prisoner and leader of the 1996 protests.

"From a justice point of view, sanctions must remain. We must punish this government," he says.

"But we must punish them in the way that hurts the poor 0 per cent. Because 1 per cent is too huge for them to bear."

Mark MacKinnon is The Globe and Mail's correspondent based in China.

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