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Myanmar: U.S. should consider dropping sanctions

NewsNotes, March-April 2009

Myanmar’s political and economic environment has deteriorated since a junta was installed in a 1962 coup. U.S. sanctions on the country, formerly known as Burma, have failed to dislodge the military rulers or empower the National League for Democracy (NLD), which won the country‘s 1990 elections. The ruling clique lives comfortably, getting all the consumer goods it wants from China and Thailand. U.S. sanctions restrict the generals’ freedom of movement and place the international banking system off limits. But they also burden local business people, already hurting from the world’s financial meltdown. As the U.S. seeks closer dialogue with the rest of the world, it should talk directly with the junta, with a view toward improving the human rights situation in Myanmar and ending U.S. sanctions.

The U.S. often views international issues in black and white, e.g., the junta in Myanmar vs. the NLD, or General Than Shwe vs. detained Nobel Peace laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Curiously, even as U.S. policies tend to further isolate Myanmar and push it deeper into China’s orbit, the U.S. is building a $62 million embassy in Yangon. The U.S. needs to realize that some military officers in Myanmar favor democracy, and some business people support the military junta.

Lifting sanctions could be made conditional on the junta releasing Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest or putting the NLD in power. Since the educational system has been neglected for 50 years, however, reshaping Myanmar overnight as a democracy could be disastrous. Setting in place a process aimed at greater popular participation would be more achievable. However, specific conditions should perhaps not be made public until quiet negotiations have made real progress.

Attitudes in Myanmar vary. Some ask that sanctions remain in place and that humanitarian aid continue to be sent through nongovernmental organizations. Others suggest that if the U.S. lifted its sanctions, Myanmar might not lean so far toward China, and that dialogue might do more to change the political system.

The worldwide economic crisis has made the issue of sanctions more urgent. As unemployment has risen in China and Thailand, Myanmar’s major trading partners, consumer buying there has decreased. As a result exports are down from Myanmar, whose average wage is less than $1 per day, and jobs are drying up.

Open debate in Myanmar is hampered by government bans on public gatherings and by the junta’s blocking of news websites and e-mail, although savvy young people can get around the firewalls. However, youth spend most of their time on line playing computer games. A generation is growing up with little knowledge of their country’s history or of Aung San Suu Kyi, who has spent some 16 years under house arrest.

Deliberate neglect has decimated Myanmar’s education system. An ignorant population is easier to control than one that is well educated. Higher education employs so-called “distance learning.” University students typically attend several weeks of classes on campus before returning home to continue their “distance education.” At the end of a semester they return to the university for three more weeks of rote learning, and then sit for final exams. University campuses are empty six months of the year.

Words can be dangerous in Myanmar. Terms such as “peace,” “dialogue” and “peaceful conflict resolution” raise red flags. The junta’s attitude seems to be, “We are not at war, so why would we need ‘conflict resolution’?” For example, a small church-sponsored group traveled to Bangkok for a seminar on peace and development. When they returned to Yangon an inspector spotted a book on the topic in their luggage. Three team members were arrested and jailed overnight as a warning. The army is said to be more afraid of the Church than of the Kachin Independence Organization, the political arm of the separatist Kachin Independence Movement.

Slightly smaller than Texas, Myanmar faces major obstacles to progress. Yangon itself is without power 12 hours or more each day, hampering efforts to develop an industrial base. The population includes a half dozen ethnic groups, each with its own language. Some of the groups are fighting for independence, and the government has faced simultaneous insurgencies for decades. Both the junta and insurgents use child soldiers, and both press the populace into service as porters in the mountains, where the insurgencies play out.

Amid ethnic conflict and political oppression, the people develop novel ways of cooperating. In an area experiencing conflict between insurgents and the government, for example, the rebels might agree to stop fighting if the government will loan trucks and the people will pay for petrol and provide rocks to build a new road.

Human rights violations sometimes overlap with environmental degradation. For example, bribes are paid on both sides as the country sends its prized hardwoods to China in exchange for arms and other goods. Despite a logging ban, hundreds of trucks will suddenly appear in a protected area, work through the night clear-cutting the site and leave before dawn.

The confluence of two rivers from China and India form the headwaters of the Irrawaddy River in northern Myanmar. One river is pristine and the other is brown, the result of mining waste from gold mines upstream. The river is also polluted with mercury from the mining operation, which has sickened or killed persons downstream who ate fish from the river.

The Church tries to walk a fine line. It did not officially support the so-called “Saffron Revolution” of August 2007, which brought thousands of Buddhist monks and other Burmese into the streets to protest fuel price increases. Through education and health programs, capacity-building and training in critical thinking, however, it seeks to prepare citizens to assume a larger role in public life in the future.

Such openness is far from the minds of the generals or Ye Myint Aung, their emissary in Hong Kong. The consul-general reportedly described the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic group in Myanmar, as “dark brown” and “as ugly as ogres.” Despite such arrogance, if the U.S. really wants to help Myanmar’s 47.8 million people and not just punish a few at the top, it should hold its nose and begin to dialogue with the government.

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