Why I Oppose Western Sanctions Against Myanmar (Burma)

25 February 2009

The Washington Post reports that Hillary Clinton says economic sanctions against Myanmar (Burma) have been a failure and the Obama Administration may consider other options.

Link: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/02/18/AR2009021800273.html?wpisrc=newsletter

I, personally, hope that some sanctions will be lifted, particularly to allow more trade that benefits sustainable industries and tourism, as these are more likely to benefit people rather than the government or large corporations.

I have had personal reason to consider the sanction issue carefully. I traveled to Myanmar last year in spite of the sanctions, but only after careful consideration of the issue of whether I could, ethically, go there. My experience highlighted, in my mind, the complexity of the issue but also the very real need to bring responsible economic development and dialogue that will eventually create an unstoppable force for free speech and human rights.

Sule Pagoda in Yangon

There are those who would say that my travel to Myanmar was ethically wrong. As a practical matter, even if one avoids government-run hotels, it is impossible, they say, for one to travel to Myanmar without putting tourism dollars into the hands of the Military Junta. The countervailing argument is that travel to Myanmar increases contact with and economic support of local people. Many who travel to Burma attempt, by catering to small, family run businesses, to tailor their travel in a way to avoid enriching the Junta and instead to put money into local pockets. The isolationists reply to this that the benefit to the Junta overwhelms the small support that local people receive from tourism; they also reply that the people of Myanmar do not need support or solidarity from outsiders who fail to understand and do not truly partake of Burmese culture. These views gave me great pause for thought before I traveled to Myanmar, but in the end I am very glad I went.

Parade for a young novitiate

In my view, the benefits of engagement between Myanmar and people from outside cultures result in more good than harm. First of all, my small engagement in dialogue with the people I met was extremely meaningful and educational for me, personally. There’s nothing like being in a place to spur development of deeper awareness and understanding. It gave me a deeper appreciation for and knowledge of people, culture, and situation.

Impromptu English lesson in a small rural school

This spurred me to do more research, to be more aware of the issues on an ongoing basis, to befriend Burmese immigrants in my own community. My deeper awareness and understanding, in turn, has made it possible for me to communicate to others, to raise awareness about what the situation is in Myanmar.
I hope that my trip also lent support and encouragement to the people I met, all of whom appeared to be ordinary citizens just trying to make it during difficult times. I pray that my continuing dialogue with them bis post and email does not jeopardize their personal security (recently a college age blogger who spoke in favor of free speech was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment), but on the other hand I’m aware that my support may be a force that can sustain through tough times.

Seamstress earning her living in Yangon

The second reason I disagree with sanctions is that they don’t work as one would hope. When Western countries pull out of an economic void in response to human rights concerns, what really happens is that other countries, from cultures less concerned with human rights, move in quickly to fill the void. Just because Western based businesses are not engaged in economic development activities in Myanmar does not mean that there is no economic development. Just as in Sudan, when western companies pulled out that left a vacuum that was quickly filled by China. Even now, the government of Myanmar considers China to be its friend while lack of engagement encourages mental vilification of the USA.
Even now, China is investing in an oil pipeline directly from Myanmar to China and selling arms to the Myanmar government. I believe that consumers from Asian countries could care less about working conditions in the mines that produce their rubies; and when I saw the throngs of people collected around Burmese jade or rare wood in the markets of Guangzhou, I don’t think I detected concern for the effects of strip mining or of clear cutting timber. (Full disclosure, I purchased a piece of jade in China without asking about its origin.)

Restaurant at a quarterly night market

In my view, Myanmar presents the West with a golden opportunity to help a fledgling economy build itself in a sustainable way, even if to do so requires an end run around the Junta. If the populace is engaged, and as the country becomes woven into the web of the global economy, the Junta will have to give way. This policy has been largely successful in China, as one example. While there is much room for improvement of human rights in China, its economic engagement with the West has made it much more of a challenge for a totalitarian government to control information, contacts, and awareness of global issues. This has resulted in a government that, while still totalitarian, is in fact more responsive to public opinion than it would at times prefer to be. I hope for a policy change in Washington, D.C.!

A worker in a textile factory near Lake Inle

On the other hand, I would hope for a policy that would be carefully and sensitively tailored in such a way as to benefit local people in sustainable ways. The world does not need more colonial powers exporting ideology from the top down, nor does Myanmar need huge capital projects wrecking the environment and traditional culture, financed by large corporations fueled solely by greedy stockholders. Myanmar presents an opportunity for investment in small scale, sustainable micro-enterprise that directly benefits people, operating within and accountable to local communities. I hope that future U.S. economic policy will be directed toward this aim.

Building a road outside Mandalay

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