Archive for the Sanctions Category

Reflections on a Journey Part III — Changed Perceptions of Burma

Posted in Burma News, Ethnic Issues, Sanctions on July 18, 2011 by burmaperspective

During the time I spent in Burma and on the border, my perception of the country changed drastically.  Much of what I leaned is likely obvious to anyone who has spent time in the developing world, or studying anything for that matter, but I think it is worth sharing nonetheless.  When our view of a problem is formed by a simplistic view of the facts, our proposed solutions tend to be equally simplistic.  If there is one thing I’ve learned, improving the problems in Burma will be anything but simple.

Information is very difficult to come by in Burma.  News tends to either come from government mouthpieces or opposition-funded news sources, which have their own biases (more on this in a later post).  As a result, I view with severe skepticism anyone who claims to be 100% sure about anything that happens in the country.  During my research, I asked the same question to many different people, with many different perspectives, and tried to put all these together to develop my own view.  I have outlined some of most significant realizations below.  Several of these warrant additional discussion, and I will discuss them further in later posts.

A smile is not always a smile

As I have discussed before, one cannot help but be blown away from reception received from Burmese people.  I was initially pleasantly surprised by the fact that, in spite of the harshness of life almost everyone I met was smiling.  As I developed friendships with many Burmese, I came to realize that the smile, while often a genuine expression of happiness, was just as often a mask for pain, sadness, or resignation.  Temper tantrums, crying, and other expressions of anger are unacceptable within the culture.  And for many, after countless disappointment, the tears have all been shed and the rage has been expressed to its fullest.  There is nothing left to do but smile.

The enigma of the Burmese smile was most clearly expressed to me during when a good friend of mine relayed her life story.  As she told me of a sister who was trafficked and infected with HIV and an HIV+ nephew who was shunned from his village, the smile never left her face.  Her tale of hardship endured by her family was interrupted by small giggles, as if neither anger nor tears could sufficiently express the depths of her emotion.

There is not always a clear line between “good guys” and “bad guys”

The Burmese army is bad.  The ethnic rebels are good.  So goes the simple narrative one encounters when first learning about Myanmar.  Then you meet the poor farming family whose son or nephew joined the army because there was no other work in the village; or the man whose sister who was going to marry a general because it was a way to escape crushing poverty.  The man who told me about his sister looked slightly ashamed as he described her new husband, assuring me that he had never even spoken to the man.  In Burma, people are sometimes faced with a decision about whether to stand up for principles or to eat, clothe, and shelter themselves.

KNU/KNLA good.  DKBA bad.[1]  Another generalization that gets bandied about amongst Burma newbies.  At first blush, this makes some sense, as the DKBA signed a cease-fire agreement with the government and started fighting against their Karen brethren.  The reality, however, is much more complex.  The KNU are mostly Christian while the DKBA are Buddhist.  Missionaries have been a presence in Burma and in the border region for a long time, offering aid and spiritual guidance.  Christian groups have done wonderful work in and around Burma, but they have also perpetuated the notion that Christian Karen are more sympathetic than Buddhists.  The fact is that while many Karen citizens applaud the KNU for their stand against the Tatmadaw, there are also many complaints regarding forced conscription into the KNLA and heavy taxes imposed by the KNU.  While I was in Hpa-An, stories were circulating about a recent sniper attack and bomb blast, one attributed to the DKBA and the other to the KNLA.  Most ordinary people I met told me that, at this point, they weren’t taking sides.  They just wanted the fighting to end so they could farm in peace.

Aung San Suu Kyi is not universally revered

There is no doubt that “The Lady” has brought much needed attention to the plight of the Burmese people.  She stepped into a leadership void, and at great personal risk, gave an eloquent voice to the suffering of a nation.  She is, at least in part, responsible for western sanctions against Burma and the attention that is paid to the country by the international community.  Within Burma, she has thousands, if not millions, of followers who look to her for inspiration.

But, that is not the whole story.  Many people I met, especially in the ethnic areas, supported Suu Kyi tepidly, if at all.  Some still blamed her father, General Aung San, both for his role in brutal attacks against pro-British Karen, and for convincing them to join the Burmans to form a united Myanmar.  Many believe Aung San Suu Kyi pays only lip service to the plight of the ethnic groups.  Moreover, many who have been active in civil society for the last 20 years, while Suu Kyi was under house arrest, blame her and the NLD for inflexible policies that have only made matters worse.

The less than unanimous for support for Aung San Suu Kyi is unlikely to be heard by the casual visitor.  Why?  More on that in the next post.


[1] The KLNA and some parts of the DKBA have recently reunited to fight against the Burmese army.

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A Plea for Reasoned Discussion

Posted in Sanctions on July 5, 2011 by burmaperspective

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.

Wikileaks Rangoon Cables Part I – Retribution vs. Development

Posted in Development, Human Rights, Sanctions on December 24, 2010 by burmaperspective

A few cables relating to Burma have been released in the newest batch of Wikileaks*   One, in particular, was particularly interesting.  It was written in 2008 by Shari Villarosa, the outgoing chargé d’affaires of the US Embassy in Rangoon and is a summary of her thoughts on a range of issues.  I am going to address several of the points she raises in the next few posts.

In the cable, Ms. Villarosa suggests that the United States may want to provide security guarantees to senior ruling generals in return for them stepping down.  This concept dovetails with some of my argument regarding a Commission of Inquiry in this post.  A blanket security guarantee would go further, eliminating, rather than delaying the possibility of retribution for the large numbers of people who have been unjustly imprisoned, forcibly relocated, or killed by the regime. The notion of what to do with leaders who have committed gross human rights abuses has been widely debated and discussed by scholars and human rights practitioners.  The International Center for Transitional Justice (which disagrees with my position on a Commission of Inquiry) is one organization that exists solely to deal with this problem.  An interesting discussion on the issue can be found here.   In my mind, the ultimate question of whether retribution should be traded off in order to accomplish goals of democracy and development should be left to the Burmese people.  Of course, how we determine the views of the “Burmese people” is a more difficult question that I will deal with in a later post. Continue reading

Sanctions — Part 3 — Some proposed alternatives

Posted in Sanctions on October 26, 2010 by burmaperspective

After two posts spent complaining about the problems with the current system, I offer some proposals:

1.     While I support ultimately ending all general economic sanctions for Burma, I understand that to do so would result in a perceived “win” for the ruling junta.  With the upcoming farcical elections, this would be an awful time to take such an action.  However, I propose immediately setting a floor for both investment sanctions as well as export sanctions.  Even a floor as low as say, $10,000 would allow westerners to make small investments to help Burmese people, without providing much benefit to the government.

2.     At the very least, provide an exception for the export of small amounts of artworks to allow local craftspeople and artisans to market their works to western countries.  This would have the dual benefits of providing a means of supporting traditional arts and handicrafts as well as raising consciousness of the purchasers regarding the humanitarian and human rights crisis in Burma. Continue reading

Sanctions — Part 2 — They do harm

Posted in Sanctions on October 21, 2010 by burmaperspective

OK, so maybe you agree that sanctions probably don’t work.  But, you’re wondering what’s so bad about sanctions?  Is it so terrible, that we don’t want to be a party to sending money to the junta?

The answer is no, its not so terrible, so long as we understand that current sanction policy has some negative repercussions.    First, and, to my mind, most importantly, by allowing our politicians to get away with patting themselves on the back for imposing broad economic sanctions, we allow them to abdicate their responsibility to put forth more well thought out policy that may actually make a difference, such as better targeted individual sanctions and pressure on other countries in the region.  More on this later.

What happened after pressure groups and western governments forced the end of western investment in Burma?  Did investment stop?  Did the exploitations of Burma’s natural resources stop?  Did forced relocation and forced labor stop?  Of course not.  Companies from other countries, most notably China, moved into the void.  I have no illusions about any kind of an altruistic streak among western companies.  But, at least with companies from the west, there is an avenue for activists to pressure them into making at least some incremental improvements in their conduct and there is an avenue for at least some punishment if they fail to do so. Continue reading

Sanctions — Part 1 — They don’t work, so why do they continue?

Posted in Sanctions on October 10, 2010 by burmaperspective

Broad economic sanctions don’t work.  Other than South Africa, I can’t think of one country where broad economic sanctions have brought about desired change.  If you know of one, please let me know.  What is not debatable is that sanctions against Burma have not brought about any positive result.  While we could debate whether sanctions in Burma could ever work, it is clear that as long as India, China, Thailand, South Korea, and others continue to trade freely with Myanmar, broad sanctions will be completely ineffectual.  So, why do sanctions continue?  I have some theories.

First, we westerners like to sleep well when we go to bed at night.  This simple fact often governs public support for international aid policy.   We say, “Well, the generals continue to get rich by exploiting natural resources at the expense of their people, but hey, we’ve got nothing to do with that because we have sanctions.”  So, we can sleep at night with the calm knowledge that our fingers are not on the exploitation.  And, for those that are so incredibly sad for the people of Burma, they can cheer that they have sent away the big bad Western corporations that have been exploiting the Burmese people.  Even in the face of clear evidence that sanctions are ineffectual, they can claim that they tried to “do something.”  They’re activists, after all.  Now they’ve done something about Burma.  Off to help the poor Africans….

Second, sanctions against a brutal dictatorial regime makes nice political optics with no downside risk.  Politicians can stand up and make nice speeches about the horrors of the junta, and say they are doing their part – something they can’t do with, say, China, because of the economic leverage the Chinese have.  We all clap at how wonderful our government is for “doing something” about Burma.  They can pose for pictures with exile leaders and talk about how tough they are on “rogue nations” without taking any real action that might actually require difficult political choices with some potential negative repercussions.

Finally, and I realize the need to tread gently here, politicians tend to take policy direction much more from the exile community than they do from people on the ground in Burma and the exile community has been one of the loudest voices in favor of sanctions.  While I have no doubt that many, if not most, exile leaders truly have the best interest of the Myanmar people at heart, they are merely one interest group in the struggle, with all the biases that come with that status.  Exile leaders have often been removed from the situation on the ground for many years and may not have the best perspective on the optimal way to proceed.  Moreover, even sub-consciously, these people have an interest in maintaining their current leadership roles and positions of importance.  A change in western policy may shift leadership to those on the ground and begin to marginalize those who were forced to leave the county.  While this does not in any way lessen the sacrifices many of these people have made to the cause of Burmese freedom, their opinions must be seen as only one perspective, and not as gospel.