UN Chief Hails Myanmar Democracy Shift as Suu Kyi Spat Ends

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon
Ban Ki-moon, secretary-general of the United Nations. Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon praised Myanmar’s transition to democracy and called on the West to lift sanctions as dissident Aung San Suu Kyi agreed to take her seat in parliament.

Ban commended moves toward reconciliation by President Thein Sein and Suu Kyi, whose party today ended a week-long dispute over an oath all lawmakers are required to take. Her National League for Democracy party won 43 of 45 seats in by-elections this month, prompting the U.S. and European Union to ease sanctions.

The international community should “go even further in lifting, easing and suspending trade restrictions and other sanctions,” Ban said today during the first address by a world leader to the country’s year-old parliament. Suu Kyi’s decision to end the impasse was “encouraging” and “in the interest of greater and fuller democracy,” Ban said after the speech.

Myanmar’s political opening has spawned interest from private equity investors and companies from General Electric Co. to Honda Motor Co. in the former dictatorship where one in 30 people have a mobile phone. The nation of 64 million people, nestled between China and India, could record annual economic growth of 8.5 percent starting in 2016 if reforms gain speed, the Economist Intelligence Unit said in an April 26 report.

The U.S. said this month it will lift economic and financial restrictions on certain sectors of Myanmar’s economy, Japan forgave about $3.7 billion of debt and the European Union suspended sanctions. EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who is also visiting Myanmar, opened a diplomatic office on April 28 in Yangon.

Luring Investment

“To some extent the ball is in the court of the Myanmar government now,” said Thant Myint-U, an author of two books on Myanmar whose grandfather, U Thant, was the first Asian head of the United Nations. “With at least a partial lifting of sanctions, the question now is will the policy environment in Myanmar be good enough that the country will attract the foreign investment and trade that everyone wants.”

The NLD had refused to take their seats in parliament until an oath taken by lawmakers to say they will “respect” instead of “safeguard” the constitution was changed. The party changed its position and agreed to say the oath “because of the people’s desire,” spokesman Nyan Win said by phone.

“We want to participate,” he said. “We will push for constitution change within parliament.”

Ban Praise

In his speech, Ban praised Suu Kyi and her party for joining the political process after years of “resilience and fortitude.” He also lauded Thein Sein for “his vision, leadership and courage to put Myanmar on the path to change.”

“I am here to say, and to say clearly: the road before you is exciting,” Ban told lawmakers. “But it will not always be easy. Eventual success will rest largely on this assembly. The perils and pitfalls are many. There is no single formula for success.”

Ban will wrap up his three-day trip tomorrow by meeting Suu Kyi for the first time at her lakeside home in Yangon, where she spent 15 of the past 23 years under house arrest. Three years ago, Ban said he was deeply disappointed to have been barred from seeing Suu Kyi, known in her homeland simply as “The Lady.”

Since taking office in March 2011, Thein Sein has freed political prisoners, held talks with Suu Kyi, dismantled a fixed exchange rate that distorted government revenue and halted the construction of a $3.6 billion Chinese-backed hydropower project in response to growing criticism China was exploiting Burmese resources. He has also sought peace deals with ethnic-based armies that control certain border areas.


Earlier today, Ban signed an agreement with Myanmar’s government to help conduct a census in 2014, which will be the country’s first in 31 years. Population estimates vary widely, with the World Bank putting the figure at 48 million, the Asian Development Bank at 60 million and the IMF at 64 million.

Ban will travel in a helicopter to Shan State, a mountainous and isolated region where opium production is rampant as farmers cultivate poppy fields as a cash crop to buy food and other basic goods. Myanmar is the second-biggest producer of opium after Afghanistan and has a rising number of drug users that has led to the third-largest HIV epidemic in Asia, according to the UN’s program on HIV/AIDS.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime last month expressed “cautious optimism” that government efforts to eradicate opium in the region have made significant progress, in part due to negotiations on peace deals with minority ethnic groups.

“These ceasefires present the opportunity for a new beginning, but what is really needed for the people of Shan is a permanent end to all conflict through the acquisition of a lasting peace,” Jason Eligh, Myanmar country manager for the UN drug office, said in a March 23 statement. “The path to achieving this peace is lined with poppies.”

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