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Getting Past the Symbolism of Aung San Suu Kyi

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YANGON, Myanmar -- Few of us like to be reminded of mistakes made by heroes, particularly heroes of conscience. Who among us remembers that Martin Luther King Jr. failed miserably when he tried to take the nonviolent strategies that worked so well in the segregated south of the United States to the industrialized north? Who likes to remember that Nelson Mandela all but ignored the HIV/AIDS crisis raging across South Africa during his presidency, which eventually took the lives of millions, including his own son?

It is a reminder that no matter how venerated the reputations of our moral heroes may be, nobody's judgment is infallible. We do no favors to the revered when we accept their truth as the only truth.

For this generation, there is no single person who occupies higher moral ground than Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi, recipient of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize. Democratically elected to lead Myanmar in 1990, she instead endured nearly two decades of house arrest at the hands of a brutal military junta. Today, as Myanmar opens up to the world in the wake of 2010's first-time-in-four-decades parliamentary elections, the woman once known as the "world's most famous political prisoner" is, as Myanmar expert and journalist Bertil Lintner puts it, "a saint-like figure who can do nothing wrong."

That influence has been felt most dramatically in the U.S. -- where Suu Kyi's voice has singularly and uncritically driven American foreign policy toward Myanmar for two decades.

From 1962 to 1990, the U.S. embraced a Burmese dictatorship that was every bit as brutal. But the imprisonment of Suu Kyi in 1989 captured the U.S. imagination and altered its policy. Because of her vocal influence, the U.S. has had economic sanctions in place since 1990 -- withholding humanitarian aid, derailing developmental assistance, denying student visas, discouraging American tourism and disengaging from military leaders. There is no precedent like it in American history.

That influence was obvious during a visit here in January by U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. When asked if the U.S. would lift sanctions after the upcoming parliamentary by-elections on April 1, McConnell replied, "I think the best arbiter of whether one or more of the sanctions ought to be lifted is Suu Kyi herself. How she feels about the direction of reform will have a lot of influence on us." In other words: as Suu Kyi goes, so goes American policy.

That marriage must end. Suu Kyi herself is running for one of the 48 parliamentary seats (out of 656 total) being contested in April, campaigning alongside other candidates from the once-banned National League of Democracy party. If elected, the Lady -- as she is known here -- will be the leader of a minority party in Parliament, and it will be inappropriate for the U.S. government to take its lead from her. With the White House moving to restore diplomatic relations with Myanmar, the U.S. is about to interact in new ways with a nation desperately in need of assistance.

Before we turn the page, it is important to see past Aung San Suu Kyi as a symbol of moral courage to evaluate the substance of her positions -- and by extension, U.S. policy -- the past two decades. Like King and Mandela before her, there are hard lessons that must be faced. I can think of four:

First, it is time to admit that economic sanctions were a mistake. Sanctions don't work if others aren't willing to play along. By folding its hand in 1990, the U.S. not only forfeited any influence it had in Myanmar, it handed the country over to China, which was all too willing to oblige with huge transfers of wealth and resources to junta leaders. As Chinese journalist Ding Gang recently wrote, "Western sanctions against Myanmar have intensified cronyism rather than weakening it (and) created more tycoons, resulting in the poor becoming poorer and the rich becoming richer." The only people sanctions hurt were everyday Myanmarese -- while giving the U.S a false sense of moral authority.

Second, denying humanitarian aid prolonged the suffering of ethnic minorities. Suu Kyi rarely mentioned the plight of ethnic minorities the past 20 years, but their anguish was multiplied by a near-complete absence of aid dollars. According to the United Nations, assistance to Myanmar averages $4 a person; 10 times below the $42 average among the world's other poorest countries. Closing that gap would have saved countless lives.

Third, denying visas to Myanmar students denied them the ability to see democracy in action. With the European Union joining the U.S. in banning students from Myanmar, particularly children of the 400,000-strong military, the West drove many young people to seek an education in Beijing. As a result, very few Myanmarese under the age of 55 have ever experienced a free society or rule of law. Suu Kyi herself left Burma at 14, was educated at Oxford, and lived for 30 years abroad before returning to Yangon in 1988 to care for her sick mother. Consciously choosing to bypass the next generation of Myanmar's leaders is an epic Western failure.

Fourth, isolating Myanmar opened the U.S. to charges of bullying. I hear it constantly here in Asia -- the U.S. sanctions countries like Myanmar and Cuba, but fails to take the same steps with countries like China, Russia, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, who have equally appalling human rights records. Of course, none of them have had a Suu Kyi to rivet international attention.

If there is one final lesson, it is the one we've known all along: the U.S. should never allow a single person in a foreign country to drive America's security policy, no matter how revered that person may be.

Stanley A. Weiss is Founding Chairman of Business Executives for National Security, a nonpartisan organization based in Washington. The views expressed are his own.