Extending Sanctions Will Help No One; It’s Now Time to Try a Different Tack
Last week, the European Union committed an irrational and counterproductive act. It renewed economic sanctions against Burma. The EU foreign ministers, meeting in Luxembourg, also extended an arms embargo and a travel ban on top Burmese officials, as well as a freeze on Burma’s assets in Europe.
It is indisputable that Burma is ruled by an odious junta that represses the citizens of that country in every facet of their lives. The junta ruthlessly persecutes the National League for Democracy, which won the 1990 elections in a landslide, yet has been prevented from taking power. And it continues to wrongfully detain the league’s leader, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi.
But despite all this, Burma-watchers across the entire spectrum of opinion increasingly now agree that in seeking to change that awful situation, there is little point in continuing a policy of economic containment. That policy, driven by Western governments, has not only failed miserably to alter the political dynamic in any way, but instead — and this is what is criminally despicable — it has greatly exacerbated the impoverishment of the Burmese people.
Even the long-suffering Suu Kyi has begun to ameliorate her original robust support for sanctions. Now, when asked if they should be continued, she says that the question should be put to the countries imposing the sanctions.
Last month, the International Crisis Group, a respected global institution headed by former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans, issued a report that stated boldly, unequivocally and rightly: “The EU should abandon a policy maintained by those with an eye on noble points rather than on new opportunities to promote change.”
The noble-minded European politicians seem to forget that poverty levels in Burma are extreme, and that in contrast to all their verbal expressions of outrage at the actions of the military junta, they provide minimal humanitarian aid to the citizens of that nation.
In neighboring Laos, for example, which is ruled by an authoritarian communist party that brooks no opposition whatsoever, the amount of external assistance per capita is around $30 a year. In Cambodia, where corruption levels are among the highest in the world, it is $50. In poor destitute Burma, it is a shocking $2.70 a year — a figure roughly comparable to what each European cow is worth per day in subsidies.
The rightly condemnatory ICG report also reflects the changing views in Washington, where, following Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s public admission that sanctions are not working, a serious reassessment of America’s Burma policy is underway. And thankfully things are now being said in public that were only whispered in private before. As every journalist who has ever visited Rangoon knows, all the Western ambassadors based there always concede — off the record, of course — that sanctions are not working and are counterproductive.
Indeed, President George W. Bush’s first assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, the highly respected James A. Kelly, believed and often privately said that the United States had a failed policy on Burma.
He was right. It is still a failed policy, but at least it is starting to change. As well as Blake’s dialogue, there have been talks in Washington, New York and Rangoon involving American diplomats and former Burma ambassadors to the United States.
Certainly, it is an open secret that the Burma regime craves better relations with the United States in order to balance its increasingly nervy economic and strategic dependence on China, and to a lesser extent on India and Russia.
This situation can be resolved. All it needs is a bit of bravery from both sides and a willingness to cut free from the shackles of past bankrupt policies — the kind of bravery that President Obama has shown in changing US policy on Cuba and Iran.
Jaw jaw is better than war war, as Winston Churchill said; and dialogue and engagement are always better than containment and shackling. Now, at last, it appears that the Obama administration in Washington is preparing to seize the opportunity. Humanitarian aid has already been stepped up. A few weeks ago, Washington donated 16,000 tons of rice to Burma to help feed victims of last year’s cyclone Nargis, which devastated parts of the Irrawaddy Delta.
Make no mistake, the currently mooted changes in American policy toward Burma are profound. That is evident when it is recalled that Clinton’s predecessor as secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, adopted a strategy that deliberately precluded any negotiated settlement in Burma — a country she infamously referred to as one of “six outposts of tyranny” in the world.
We should applaud the US reassessment and the moves of others who are also adopting a new stance, led by the business community which has long realized that sanctions are simply not working in practice.
Over the past couple of months, there have been several seminars, breakfast workshops and dinner talks held in Bangkok and Singapore about the prospect of doing business in Burma. They have all drawn a better than expected audience, including a senior diplomat from the US Embassy.
And there have been inquiries from Washington, where the American Chamber of Commerce and the US-Asean Business Council have always voiced opposition to the policy of sanctions.
Luc de Waegh, managing partner of Singapore-based West IndoChina Consulting, which promotes business links with Burma, said he believes that everyone has a right to economic development and that prosperity is an important catalyst for social development. That is precisely the point made by the ICG report, which recommends that the West’s restrictions on humanitarian and development aid should stop.
This does not mean, as some short-sighted souls seem to think, that Western governments would be rewarding the regime. Rather, it means they would be attending to the terrible impoverishment of the Burma citizenry which should not have to wait for possible political change before receiving aid.
Clearly, the international financial institutions like the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the IMF should be allowed to set up operations in Burma, not so much to provide macro-credit as to facilitate technical assistance and capacity building, and to support economic reform.
That this seems blindingly obvious is one of the reasons why the EU’s recent reimposition of sanctions is so reprehensible and so shallow and hypocritical.
Indeed, as a final coda confirming the mind-boggling hypocrisy of the Europeans, try to get your head around this: North Korea is run by a mad dictator who has brought mass starvation to his people in order to develop rockets and nuclear weapons.
Yet our noble European friends — who cannot even say the word Myanmar, yet happily refer to the “Democratic” People’s Republic of Korea — have an official Web site that provides helpful and detailed advice for European investors in the kingdom of Kim Jong Il.
So, mes amis, go ahead and invest in North Korea, but don’t you dare go near Burma.
The Asia Sentinel