Why the US should heed calls for change in Burma

Vishal Arora Contributor
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I was in Chiang Mai, a town in northern Thailand close to the Burma border where numerous pro-democracy and ethnic minority leaders are based, in the run-up to as well as following the first general election in 20 years in Burma. I was there to report on preparations, but the only story I got was about the Burmese people’s lack of enthusiasm and activity around the “historic” election.

However, the prevailing pessimism had little to do with the election, which was being viewed as a mere show of reform to the outside world. A party led by military generals who had shed only their uniforms and not their attitudes seemed all set to claim an overwhelming victory. The “new” constitution reserved one-fourth of the seats in national and regional assemblies. “But the constitution can be amended sometime in the near future, isn’t it?” I asked Aung Zaw, former Burmese democracy activists and now the editor of Irrawaddy, a magazine that specializes in Burma issues. “Nope,” he replied tersely. “Can you return to Burma and not get arrested?” “Nope,” he uttered again.

Zaw’s response typified my interaction with most Burmese activists. Longer replies came only in response to questions surrounding international politics. An American activist, Garrott Kostin, who is in charge of the Chiang Mai-based NGO Best Friend Library, said he expected his country to gather the support of its allies in favor of an international Commission of Inquiry to investigate war crimes by the Burmese military regime “until the level of international support is enough to compel the United Nations to act.”

Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was freed last November after around 20 years of house-arrest, recently reflected Burmese citizens’ expectations by seeking discussions with foreign nations, including the United States, on the role of sanctions in Burma.

On February 8th, Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, which was barred by the junta before the polls, released a report on sanctions, acknowledging the role sanctions could play in effecting improvements in the human rights situation and promoting democratic values — the objective behind the sanctions imposed by the West. “Appropriate policies, wisely coordinated and consistently applied, would constitute the best path to the achievement of this objective,” said the statement posted on the newly opened website of her party. It came after some Burmese parties, including ones led by ethnic minorities that have otherwise been at war with the junta, nations and blocs called for the lifting of sanctions.

On the face of it, the gathering opposition to sanctions looks charitable — with its argument that instead of hurting the junta, the “stick” has prevented economic growth and promoted poverty — but shows a lack of analytical depth.

“Allegations that economic sanctions have prevented the emergence of a middle class overlook the glaring fact that there is no genuine market economy in Burma. Blatant cronyism is the trademark of the Burmese economy and constitutes the main obstacle to the emergence of small and medium enterprises,” said the statement. It also pointed to the refusal of the junta to accept suggestions of reforms “that might in any way diminish their absolute grip on power in all spheres of the life of the nation.”

It is true that regional players like China, Thailand and India, which have no consideration for human rights violations in Burma, render sanctions by the West ineffective by engaging with Burma. Chinese companies in particular are exploiting Burma’s resources by stuffing the wallets of senior generals. However, lifting the sanctions will overfill these wallets, leading to money laundering and the misuse of revenues from the sale of gas and other natural resources. This will further empower the generals and increase the frequency of atrocities.

Instead of removing sanctions, the State Department should encourage Thailand, India, and even China to think twice about financially engaging with the Burmese authorities, Kostin says. “Burma’s neighbors should be ashamed to deal with the illegitimate rulers in Burma, but this requires pressure from the West, along with political will,” he added.

Kostin’s and Suu Kyi’s prescriptions are rooted in their concern for the over 2,000 political prisoners; hundreds of thousands of non-Burman ethnic people who are routinely subjected to attacks, expulsion, forced labor and rape; and all Burmese citizens who have lived under authoritarian rule for decades. But foreign policies are based on “larger” interests. So what’s there for the Unites States? One of the motivations could be that Burma offers an opportunity for Washington to show that unlike its competitor China, both in business and strategic interests, it genuinely cares for democracy and peace around the world — a claim which is being disputed in the wake of protests against regimes in the Arab world the United States had befriended out of pragmatism.

I hope I will find some enthusiasm the next time I visit Chiang Mai. Yes, the United States can.

Vishal Arora is a journalist in New Delhi, India, who researches and writes on politics, religion, culture and foreign affairs in South and South-East Asia. His articles have appeared in Guardian, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, World Poltics Review, Foreign Policy in Focus and many more agencies in India, the US and the UK. He can be contacted at vishalarora_in@hotmail.com.