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Many can claim credit for fledgling movement

Suu Kyi

With Burma moving toward democracy, there’s no shortage of players willing to take some credit.

Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., said in a letter to the Washington Post a couple of months ago that “without the intense efforts initiated from my office, including my groundbreaking visit to Burma in 2009, many of the democratic advances in Burma (also known as Myanmar) would not have taken place.”

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, speaking on Sept. 19 as Burma’s democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi won the Congressional Gold Medal, recounted her formulation of “a new approach that the United States might take to try to see if there were any ways to help move a transition forward. ... And slowly, change started.”

We suppose the more parents of this incomplete but encouraging reform process, the better, if those parents feel invested in helping to keep reform on track.

But before history gets totally rewritten, it’s worth making a couple of points.

One is that generals and ex-generals still run Burma, as generals have been running Burma for the past half-century. The stirrings of reform that have allowed Suu Kyi to travel and that prompted the United States to lift pretty much the last of its economic sanctions last week are only that: stirrings. There is no rule of law, no independent judiciary. Suu Kyi now sits in parliament but as part of a small minority.

The second point is that, given the opacity of the regime, no outsider can be sure what prompted it to reach out to the democratic opposition at this moment. We would defer to Suu Kyi’s version of history, which gives a big dollop of credit to the economic sanctions that the United States and other nations imposed years ago.

“Sanctions have helped,” Suu Kyi said during a recent visit to the Post. “Some people may disagree, but I believe sanctions have helped, especially on the political front. ... The very fact that there’s a strong desire to have sanctions limited shows they were effective.”

Interestingly, Suu Kyi said that she did not believe the sanctions affected Burma’s economy all that much; for the nation’s poverty, she blamed “internal factors,” which she did not name. But the isolation had a big political effect – worth recalling the next time foreign policy experts say, as they did so often in Burma’s case, that sanctions can never work, or can only work if they are applied with 100 percent effectiveness, or will harm only the nation’s poorest people.

It seems likely that China’s increasing assertiveness made Burma’s leaders nervous, as it has made nervous the leaders of most East Asian and Southeast Asian countries.

Thanks to strict sanctions, Burma’s leaders understood that, if they were to entice the West to play a balancing role, they would have to improve their human rights record.

They may also have been motivated by a desire to improve the lot of their people, as Suu Kyi charitably suggested (though we can’t help noting that their people’s poverty hadn’t seemed to weigh on them much in preceding years).

And they may indeed have been encouraged by the Obama administration’s engagement policy, which let them know that risks for reform would be reciprocated.