Only the most hopelessly hardened cynic could fail to be moved by the Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech Burma's human rights heroine Aung San Suu Kyi delivered Saturday in Oslo — 21 years after learning, while under house arrest, that she had won the prize. Her address to the Nobel committee conveyed the qualities of character that have made her, over 24 hard years, the embodiment of resistance to Burma's military dictatorship. Her unaffected tone of self-mockery, her Buddhist commitment to non-violence and the quest for harmony in self and society, her steely insistence that the generals who turned her country into their own resource-rich preserve must complete the reform process they have begun — these were some of the rare leadership traits she displayed in Oslo.
But there are also crucial policy lessons to be drawn from her Nobel talk. Suu Kyi is free today after 15 years of confinement under house arrest, she has become a member of Burma's military-dominated Parliament, and she has a passport to travel. But none of this would have been possible without US and European sanctions that forced one of the world's most vicious regimes to undertake a still-tenuous course change. Anyone who doubts that sanctions can be effective, at least in certain specific cases, need only consider what Suu Kyi has said about the success of sanctions — and contemplate the initial reforms permitted by the Burmese junta.
The generals want to profit far more than they have from foreign investment and trade. They want to host the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) confab in 2014, and to do so they must become more respectable and less the captive client of China than they are now. But the only way to achieve those goals is to get sanctions lifted, and the only way to have sanctions lifted is to begin releasing political prisoners, allowing some freedom of speech, and instituting the investor protections that may shield foreign investors from theft and corruption.
Suu Kyi, upsetting her former jailers, has spoken on her current trip about the need for foreign investors to demand rule of law and an independent judiciary before they start extracting Burma's bounteous energy resources. Indeed, the Obama administration may have been a bit too eager to start waiving some of the sanctions in the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act. It would be a mistake to cede the leverage of financial sanctions before all political prisoners are released, the generals' wars against ethnic minorities are ended, the junta's bogus Constitution is revised to allow true civilian democratic governance, and rule of law is firmly established.
Both the success of the Burma sanctions and the need to be careful about lifting them too quickly point to another policy lesson to be gleaned from Suu Kyi's steadfastness. It was possible to impose sanctions on the Burmese military dictatorship because those sanctions received bipartisan support in the Congress and from Republican as well as Democratic administrations. The very partisan Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky lauded that bipartisan cooperation when introducing the Senate's renewal of the sanctions legislation recently.
The heroism of Suu Kyi and the justification of the Burma sanctions alike are rooted in the ideal of universal human rights and the political construct that safeguards those rights. As Suu Kyi told the Nobel Committee: "If I am asked why I am fighting for democracy in Burma, it is because I believe that democratic institutions and practices are necessary for the guarantee of human rights.''
There never was a more deserving winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.