Obama administration on U.S.’ Burma policy

For quite a while, I’ve been of the position that sanctions against Burma do little in persuading the Burmese military regime in changing its ways. While waiting at the Survarnabhumi airport, I read a Times article entitled “The Scramble For A Piece of Burma” that basically says the same thing, that the vacuum of investment from Western countries has given Asian countries the advantage in exploiting Burma’s natural resources:

While American and European foreign policy thinkers ponder how to financially strangle an army government that has ruled since 1962, Burma’s regional neighbors are embarking on a new Great Game, scrambling to outdo each other for access to this resource-rich land. (Time)

I’m glad I voted for Obama in the 2008 election. I’ve wondered whether his administration would change its position on Burma, or at least publicly acknowledge the ineffectiveness of the U.S.’ policy on Burma. I wanted to leave an Online Town Hall question on the White House website about this, but given the current interest in other issues, it would have probably been brushed aside by others (currently there are only 4 questions on Burma). But it’s interesting to see a shift coming from the Obama adminsitration. This is what Jim Steinberg, current U.S. Deputy State Secretary has to say:

“We all have a common interest in working together to get a constructive solution that convinces the junta that the path they are pursuing is not in their interest.” (AP)

The Washington Post also reported a month ago about this:

“Clearly, the path we have taken in imposing sanctions hasn’t influenced the Burmese junta,” [Hillary Clilnton] said, adding that the route taken by Burma’s neighbors of “reaching out and trying to engage them has not influenced them, either.” (Washington Post)

Last week, a U.S. diplomat met with Burmese foreign minister Nyan Win, but the Obama administration vehemently denied changing course on its Burma policy:

Blake didn’t have “any substantive conversations” with officials in the country formerly known as Burma, “nor has the U.S. position on Burma changed,” State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid said. (Bloomberg)

Regardless, it’s nice to know that they are reconsidering alternative ways of dealing with the military regime. It will be intriguing to see what happens in the upcoming weeks with regard to the American policy on Burma.

5 thoughts on “Obama administration on U.S.’ Burma policy

  1. Thida Kyipya says:

    Sanctions are not effective enough to persuade the regime to the negotiation table and introduce democratic changes to the country, but they are one of very few that might do those tricks. If you take a perspective that different international approaches, be they hard-line, soft-line or pragmatic one practised by China, do not yield any substantial results over all these years, you will probably agree that sanctions have a good reason to remain in the game. They hurt the regime and inevitably general public, but while other measures can hardly put any pressure on the regime to improve the current situations, lifting sanctions will do more harm than good to Burma. Also, lifting sanctions won’t guarantee more jobs and better lives for ordinary citizens if basic economic infrastructure and rule of law are not restored. It can however boost the crony capitalism now thriving in Burma. To lift or not to lift sanctions will remain a million dollar question like a question ‘What can change Burma?’

    • Aung Kyaw says:

      Thida Kyipya – I understand your reasoning, but I feel that unless there is a concerted sanctions (with all of Burma’s major trading partners having similar policies in place), sanctions are not the best option to press for change in Burma. In my humble opinion, I believe that cautious engagement is the best alternative, because in this way, the American government doesn’t play into the hands of the Burmese government and its stakeholders.

    • PTW says:

      Sanctions are merely creations of Burmese expatriots like US Campaign for Burma who couldn’t come up with better alternatives. US Gov and UN do not have any idea how to deal with Burma other than consulting with USCB. In my opinion, if you really care about helping the people of Burma, you should ask them what would really benefit them. I don’t believe anyone in Burma (I’m not talking about you and I who have left the country) would appreciate the current sanctions in Burma.

      If you ask ordinary people, businessmen to even military personnel, all of them will agree what sanctions actually bring to Burma are cheap quality products and human right abuses for the same amount of resources Burma pays for. If you know the difference between the qualities of US/European products and those of Asian companies, you would agree that Burmese people will benefit better from having US/European companies in Burma. I guess you probably know that China has the same human rights abuses and the same kind of military govt. Why do you think China is way better off than Burma today? If there would have been US/European Sanctions because they don’t release political prisoners from Tiananmen Square, do you think the look of Chinese cities will be different from today’s–having every starbucks and McDonald’s every corner and everyone has a cellphone?

      I don’t agree with your argument that govt cronies would be better off when sanctions are not there. Yes, it is human nature to get rich as much as possible. Their iron fist that these cronies currently has on Burma may be tighter if more foreign investments are there. But who’s to tell what’s the limit. Why do we assume that that iron fist will be stronger? China has faced the same problem in 1990s. Lots of govt officials took bribes from foreign investments. But these things will inevitably exist in a developing country. When a country matures, what you will see is changes in people attitudes towards their countries and the sacrifice they want to make for it.

      In addition to all the goodies Burmese people are missing because of sanctions, lets talk about all the irreparable damages caused by sanctions. As you may know, Burmese people can survive by eat barely anything. So I’m not talking about poverty as irreparable damage. What I’m talking about are consequences of poverty and unemployment such as prostitution, drugs and communicable diseases. For example, many young men and women came to Rangon from 1990 to 1996 to work in textile industries. When these factories were closed down, they didn’t go back. Many of the girls turned into prostitution and other things. In addition, many people I know have contracted communicable diseases such as hepatitis B mainly because the dental equipments are not clean. If there are better equipments in Burma, couldn’t we save those instances? If you have a relative who became a victim of either of these just because economic stress caused by sanctions, wouldn’t you curse at the sanctions?

      • Aung Zeya says:

        One of the most thoughtful pieces I’ve seen on the topic.

        Sanctions haven’t achieved anything but make the people (the 99.9% suffering under the uneducated, unenlightened thugs) dumber and less prepared to face a globalized world.

        The only ones benefiting from the current state are the elite, who care less about the increasing backwardness of the country than their survival and continued hold on power and resources. Of course, Burma’s neighbours (China, Thailand, ASEAN) LOVE the status quo despite what they complain in the media. They get to rape Burmese natural resources at rock-bottom prices (why invite in Western/Japanese firms lest they bid up the prices?) and get Burmese labour at cheap cheap prices. They have a captive market all for themselves to dump their cheap rejects on to.

        We have only ourselves to blame.

        Sickens me to hear the government talks about patriotism when they have allowed Upper Burma to be a Chinese colony. (Hsinbyushin is turning in his grave!) The children of the elite seem to copy the lifestyle/fashion of the west (or Korean soap stars) but don’t seem just content to be the big fish in a very very small pond. They don’t seem to have any pride or zeal to transform the country in any meaningful way–enlarging the pond. Most Burmese youth have nothing to look forward to. The best they have to look forward to is to get a menial job abroad. Most end up being much worse. Many girls end up being prostitutes. These are our brothers and our sisters!

        Equally sickening is when the expats abroad climb the moral high horse, and start preaching the virtues of democracy… They are for the sanctions except when they send money back to their relatives. Utter hypocrisy. I find many equally dictatorial; shouting down people who may have a more nuanced view (even of Obama). Their world view despite their rhetoric isn’t much different from that of the very “thugs” they claim to oppose.

        We can all WISH for a pragmatic leader like Gen. Aung San. Don’t wish. He was a once-in-many-generations leader. It’s the Burmese people inside that have to do it. Those abroad ought to augment the human capital and capabilities of the people inside, not retard them. Engagement is what has transformed China and Vietnam. Sanctions retard the Burmese people’s human capital. Or at least think about it when you send money back to your relatives next time.

  2. Myat Minn says:

    All your comments are eye-openers for me, my brothers and sister. However, dwelling on the thoughts of rights and wrongs of sanctions will not do much good to Burmese people. I can see that you all have very sharp and analytical minds. I sincerely ask you to come up with any idea which might work for Burmese people. What Burmese people needs now are not arguments but solutions.

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