Mon 31 Jan 2011
Filed under: Business / Trade,Opinion,Other
Myanmar’s newly elected Parliament is scheduled to meet for the first time today, three months after the military-ruled nation’s first elections in two decades.
This should have been a perfect opportunity for Western governments to re-engage with a country they pointedly still call ‘Burma’. That’s precisely what Asean foreign ministers suggested last week, calling on Europe and the United States to lift their economic sanctions.
But the silence from the West has been deafening, despite most governments knowing that their current approach is counter-productive.
Since the mid-1990s, the European Union (EU) and the US – as well as Australia, Canada and New Zealand – have slapped various sanctions against Myanmar. These include a ban on trade in weapons, timber, gems and metals, as well as visa restrictions on members of the regime and the suspension of development aid programmes.
There are several reasons why Western governments – which have no difficulties in dealing with other authoritarian regimes – continue to ostracise Myanmar.
One is psychological. Myanmar experienced a popular uprising in 1988, just when communist Eastern Europe underwent similar upheavals. This led Europeans to see Myanmar as, somehow, part of their march to freedom. The annulment of its free elections in 1990 shattered the myth of the much-talked-about ‘end of history’, the triumph of democracy.
The personality of Ms Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s chief opposition leader, also played a part. Physically frail but politically unbreakable, she became the West’s latter-day Mahatma Gandhi, a champion of freedom.
A ferocious lobbying offensive against Myanmar has also done its bit. The Burma Campaign is one of Britain’s most effective pressure groups.
Ultimately, however, the real reason for sanctions is that, despite Myanmar’s vast natural wealth, it was never a major trading partner of the West. Ostracising Myanmar entailed few costs.
But the outcome is a disaster. Dr Niklas Swanstrom, who heads Sweden’s Institute for Security and Development Policy, says: ‘What we see today in Myanmar is not a weakened government, but stronger governmental control of resources and people.’
The only ones to suffer are the ordinary people in a country which started its independence as one of Asia’s richest states but now ranks 138th out of 182 nations on the United Nations Human Development Index.
Asean’s appeal for the end of sanctions is based on two chief arguments: that a new generation of military officers will soon come to power and should be encouraged to be more open-minded, and that a boost in trade and aid will give Myanmar’s rulers further incentives, as well as alleviate the population’s suffering.
But many Western politicians are not persuaded, noting the military has held power for two generations and there is no proof the next will be any different.
The claim that economic development would follow the lifting of sanctions is also doubtful. This can happen only if the economy is freed from political control and if Myanmar’s rulers accept the need to improve their people’s welfare.
For the moment, neither seems likely. The country’s revenue is steadily increasing, but the population gets next to nothing: Less than 2 per cent of the national budget is allocated to health and education combined.
Indeed, a good case can be made that lifting sanctions will make little difference. Myanmar’s raw materials are controlled by Chinese or Indian corporations. Tourism is already not restricted. Western firms determined to benefit from Myanmar’s opportunities are already there.
Other business may never come. Why, for instance, should Western garment companies go to Myanmar, when Bangladesh, Cambodia or Vietnam already offer abundant cheap labour as well as better transport infrastructure?
‘The logic of gradual change through engagement, development aid and trade has no empirical basis in the history of meaningful social change from dictatorships in either the East or the West,’ says Dr Maung Zarni, a noted Myanmar human rights activist, now a research fellow at the London School of Economics.
Since the political backlash from noisy non-governmental organisations is likely to be fierce and the economic benefits likely to be low, few Western governments have an incentive to abandon the sanctions. Indeed, even Ms Suu Kyi herself does not favour a lifting of sanctions, the Financial Times reported this past weekend.
Nevertheless, a way forward does exist. The Europeans have noted that Asean’s latest initiative goes beyond a call to lift sanctions, to include a pledge to help break Myanmar’s internal political impasse. As Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa put it last week, ‘lifting the ban and reconciliation should go hand in hand’.
More importantly, the US is already pledged to a new ‘pragmatic engagement’ with Myanmar. Little has emerged from Washington since this policy shift announced in September 2009 but the US is clearly searching for alternatives.
The real challenge, therefore, is one of timing. Asean is unlikely to get a formal, public promise from either the EU or the US to lift sanctions at this early stage.
But it is entitled to demand – in private – a pledge from Western governments to respond quickly and positively to any future political concessions which Asean may extract from Myanmar. The sanctions could be lifted in stages, with the most symbolic ones remaining for a longer period.
Europe will probably not take the first step. Still, if the US can be persuaded to move together with Asean, the EU can be cornered into changing its stance.
The Asean appeal has succeeded in one respect: in reminding Western governments that their failed policies on Myanmar are overdue for review. But the hard work of delivering on engagement with Myanmar still lies ahead. Either way, nothing further can now be gained by continuing with the megaphone diplomacy and public finger-pointing between Asean and the West.