A Plea for Reasoned Discussion

There are many reasons why Burma has been unable to get out from under dictatorial and oppressive rule. One that does not get nearly enough attention is the division among those that are ostensibly on the same side, against the abusive policies of the government. This division can be seen inside many of the ethnic leadership, among pro-democracy organizations on the boarder, and among activists abroad. For years, it was a battle over tourism and now the battleground has shifted to sanctions policy.

A recent opinion piece in the Guardian by Simon Tisdall is emblematic of the unnecessary and damaging divisiveness that pervades among Burmese activists. It purports to respond to an article by Markus Loening, the German federal commissioner for human rights policy. By the sound of Mr. Tisdall’s response, you would think that Mr. Loening wants to engage the ruling generals in a group hug and start sending them shipments of weapons. But this is not what he is advocating at all. Rather, because Mr. Loening has the audacity to question the efficacy of sanctions, Mr. Tisdall vilifies him.  Elsewhere in this blog, I have made my position against sanctions clear. However, I understand that reasonable people can disagree with my position and am more than happy to engage in reasoned discussion. Too many in the pro-sanctions camp are quick to call someone naive or an apologist for the regime for simply having a different opinion.

I recognize that I am not an economist, nor do I have a degree in foreign relations. However, I have done a fair amount of research on the subject of sanctions and the evidence is far from clear that sanctions are effective. While Britain was lauded by Mr. Tisdall in his piece for its commitment to sanctions, their effectiveness have been questioned by The House of Lords’ Select Committee on Economic Affairs in 2007.  Moreover, a 2008 study concluded that “the sanctions’ impact was inflicted disproportionately on small- and medium-sized domestic private firms and their workers.”

Instead of disagreeing with Mr. Loening on the merits of the argument, Mr. Tisdall accuses him of positions that appear no where in his article. He accuses Germany of “self-serving fantasy,” and “too quick to buy in to the generals’ risable reform narrative.”  I challenge anyone to find any such concept in Mr. Loening’s article. To the contrary, he states, in no uncertain terms, that “human rights continue to be violated” and makes clear the importance of “keeping pressure on the regime.”  The only place Mr. Loening speaks of change, he is referring to political optimism coming from “civil society activists, opposition party leaders [and] Ms Suu Kyi herself.” Hardly the words of someone who is ready to get in bed with the generals.

The danger in Mr. Tisdall’s article is apparent in several of the comments to the article, which take his reading as gospel. Moreover, I have seen the article posted on Twitter multiple times. For those who do not read Mr. Loening’s article for themselves, angry letters and a denouncement of Germany is likely to follow. Instead of reasoned debate about the efficacy of sanctions, we have a name-calling session, compete with strawman.

Now, Mr. Tisdall is not the only one to misread Mr. Loening’s piece. In fact, he clearly draws his interpretation directly from Burma Campaign UK’s response to Mr. Loening’s article. Burma Campaign UK’s report is also filled with angry and nasty commentary, but at least it does challenge Mr. Loening on the facts.

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