Burma needs to commit to lasting reforms that will weed out corruption and draw foreign investment that can create jobs to defuse an unemployment "time bomb," opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi said at an international economic conference on Friday.
“We want a national commitment to become firm. Without this national commitment we cannot go forward,” the 66-year-old Nobel laureate told a meeting of the World Economic Forum in Bangkok, on her first overseas trip in 24 years.
She called on the international community to be cautious with their economic investment in the country, following the easing of economic sanctions that has opened up the country to investment from the U.S. and EU after decades of isolation.
“We do not need the kind of reforms that may benefit any particular group or individual or organization," she said.
Instead, what Burma needs in order to improve the lives of its people is to address corruption and the legal system, and to build up its capacity with education, jobs, and training, she said.
Burma needs to “build up a strong basic foundation for reform success,” she said, warning that unemployment among young people in Burma is a “time bomb” and that there is “a grave lack of people” with skills to carry the country forward.
“We do not want more investment to mean more possibilities for corruption … or greater inequality … or greater privileges for the already privileged.”
“We want investment to mean jobs, as many jobs as possible.”
In May, the U.S. announced the suspension of long-running sanctions against Burma that had been imposed against the country’s previous former ruling military junta for its human rights abuses, but has said it will keep the measures “on the books” to ensure against backsliding.
As American companies look to invest in Burma, the country should not become a “battling ground between the U.S. and China, with whom the country has had stronger economic ties in recent decades, Aung San Suu Kyi said at a press conference after the forum.
She said Burma would try to maintain good relations with its neighbors but at the same time open up the country “to others who are interested in our welfare."
First trip overseas
Before her trip, Aung San Suu Kyi had spent the majority of the past two decades under house arrest in Rangoon during harsh military junta rule.
The democracy icon had been reluctant to leave the country for fear she would not be allowed to return.
But following reforms undertaken since Burma’s new, nominally civilian government came to power last year under President Thein Sein, Aung San Suu Kyi won a seat in parliament in a landmark vote in April.
Thein Sein was expected to attend the forum but postponed his official visit to Bangkok until next week “because of unfavorable conditions,” according to a message posted on his website Friday. He was represented by the Minister for Energy.
Aung San Suu Kyi, who has met with Thein Sein twice since her release from house arrest in November 2010, said she believes he is committed to reform, but that she is more skeptical of the military, which backs his government.
“I do believe in the sincerity of the president when he speaks of his commitment to reform. But of course I also recognize he is not the only person in government and … there is the military to be reckoned with,” she said at the press conference after the forum.
“I cannot read what they feel in their hearts or their minds,” she said.
She said her party would work to hold them accountable to the commitments they have voiced.
“Since the president and other members have said they want national reconciliation and they are committed to the path of genuine reform, we all have to work to make sure that they keep their word."
Burma will host the World Economic Forum meeting in Burma in 2014.
Reported by Rachel Vandenbrink.