The Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act 2003, signed into law by President Bush, implemented sanctions against Burma’s military junta for failing to hand over power to the National League of Democracy. This act is set to expire on July 26. Even though I hope the sanctions will expire, they will probably be renewed. It seems that it’s far easier to be oblivious and ignorant of Burma than to confront the issue directly. Although Burma is one of the ‘outposts of tyranny’, a term coined by Condoleeza Rice, America has done little to confront the issue of Burma. Even ASEAN secretary-general Ong Keng Yong has acknowledged that sanctions are futile. He states that “These kinds of sanctions and isolation does not work … They are happy being isolated because they are left alone to do whatever they want to do”. Exactly.
Even with U.S. and EU sanctions, the Burmese government continues to trade openly with its main economic partner China, as well as regional neighbors, such as Thailand. The Bangkok Post reports that Thailand, for the first time in 18 years, reported a trade deficit of $2.05 billion USD to Burma. This just comes to show how ineffective U.S. sanctions are. Naturally, when U.S. companies are forced to exit, others are eager to join in, especially in the oil boom Burma is currently experiencing. This eliminates worthy competition.
What does the U.S. expect from sanctions? Lofty goals, particularly “measurable and substantial progress toward implementing a democratic government.” Sanctions do nothing more than to bring renminbi and rupees to the military government. Even India has realized that it had to bring down its democratic rhetoric, fearing that it would lose potential economic ties with Burma.
I believe the U.S. needs to engage with Burma, both economically and diplomatically. Rather than shunning the military junta that was closeted for decades before coming out of its shell, the U.S. should take the lead among Western nations and try, at least try, to materialize its goals for Burma.
I am most certainly against the military prospering through trade, but what’s the purpose when it is already flourishing with money flowing all around? And it is not as if Burma is the single dictatorship remaining in Asia. There’s one next door in Thailand. Burma needs contact from the West. The situation Burma is currently in is actually comfortable for the generals–they don’t need to deal with censure from the U.S. for the government’s human rights violations, political repression because diplomatic ties have been cut off. The U.S. recognizes a political party–the NLD–that is virtually outlawed in the country, save for a few offices in main cities.
Even though those who support pro-sanctions would argue that sanctions would not harm ordinary citizens, they would most certainly be aided without sanctions. A case in point: when my family went to Burma in 2005, we hired a local driver in Nyaung U who I will not name. He said that during the peak season (December to January) for foreign tourists, he makes about $100 USD, far more than he makes during the rest of the year working at his family business, making lacquerware. He has been able to put all four of his children through college and two work as local schoolteachers and the other two work in Pagan hotels as waiters (only those with college degrees are hired). His family depends on the tourist industry. Most of the taxi driver’s clients are Europeans. In his own words, he said that without the money he gets from foreigners, he would not be able to advance his family’s financial standing.
Although I do not know much about Cuba, the U.S. began sanctions against the country in 1962. Four decades later, Cuba is still communist and not much has changed as a result of U.S. sanctions, particularly because many other countries have continued to engage with Cuba. The same is happening in Burma. Unfortunately, even though major pressure groups like the Burma Campaign UK support sanctions, they are merely symbolic and nothing more.