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Myanmar Pastors See Positive Signs

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World — Sung San Suu Kyi, the “Great Lady” of Myanmar and a global icon of democracy, arrived in Bangkok on May 29—her first trip abroad in 24 years. Fifteen of those years were spent under on-again, off-again house arrest at the hands of Myanmar’s military dictatorship, but even during her seasons of freedom she elected to remain in her home country, more popularly known as Burma, rather than cross the border and risk not being allowed to return home.

Suu Kyi attended the World Economic Forum in Thailand last month, hearing speakers and panelists address political and economic issues affecting Asia and the globe. She remained in listening mode throughout each session, refraining from speaking to the media or submitting questions to panelists—even when the topic for discussion was her own country and the cause of freedom she herself has come to symbolize.

Before mixing with powerful diplomats and business leaders at the forum, Suu Kyi ventured out to visit the town of Mahachai, home to the largest population of migrants from Burma living in Thailand. She listened to migrant workers describe some of the daunting problems they face—poverty, mistreatment by employers, trafficking, child labor, and lack of legal standing to defend their rights. Brokers with ties to gangs and corrupt government officials lure many Burmese into Thailand with false promises of a better life, and the migrants find themselves unable to return. Addressing a crowd of thousands from a community center balcony, Suu Kyi offered words of encouragement and—as a newly elected member of parliament—promised to try to help them.

Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), captured 43 of 45 parliamentary seats in special elections in April. The party wields a popular influence far greater than its numerical strength in the 600-member assembly, which remains dominated by the pro-military ruling party. President U Thein Sein, a former general, has surprised many observers by taking significant steps toward democratizing the authoritarian regime and liberalizing the state-run economy. He has also released hundreds of political prisoners and negotiated cease-fire agreements with major armed ethnic rebel groups.

Visiting leaders like British Prime Minister David Cameron and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon applaud such progress, and the European Union, along with Australia and Canada, rewarded the government by voting to suspend long-term sanctions. Japan has also agreed to forgive some $3.8 billion in outstanding debts and resume development loans to Myanmar. The Obama administration has taken a more circumspect approach, upgrading diplomatic ties and easing sanctions, but—with pressure from Congress—has refused to lift sanctions until further reforms are made. Thein Sein appears ready to loosen the grip of military dictatorship, but the military itself remains a powerful ruling force.

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