The answer to Myanmar’s problems is obvious: The sooner the will of the majority of its people is respected, the better for all concerned in the country, the region and beyond.
The question is how is this going to happen? There are three possible scenarios:
* By means of a popular uprising — unfortunately already aborted in Myanmar and in any case extremely difficult in any country, since the guns dictate developments from the wrong side of the fence.
* By threatening sticks.
* By offering carrots. A combination of the last two options may be a more sophisticated way, but its effectiveness depends on a very delicate mixing operation and its appropriate timing.
In Myanmar’s case, some influential outsiders have opted for sticks, others for carrots (or in a more elegant terminology, “sanctions” and “constructive engagement” respectively.) Both have failed. This dual approach has played beautifully into the hands of the military: “Burma’s State Peace and Development Council . . . has over the years shrewdly exploited the lack of a unified universal approach to force political change in Burma,” writes one Thai observer.
Assuming that “carrots” only increase the craving to stay in power, let us consider the weakness of “sticks”:
Professor J. Silverstein recently proposed the expulsion of the Yangon regime from the United Nations. The initial counter-arguments are easy: What are the precedents for such an action? What procedures will be followed? How can the U.N. proceed to “selective” expulsions ?
A totality of democratic members in the U.N. is an appealing Utopia, but for the foreseeable future, at least, just that: a Utopia. Moreover, the timing of this idea is unfortunate, since it coincides with a laudable initiative by Secretary General Kofi Annan to reactivate the U.N.’ s role in the matter through the appointment of a new representative, Ambassador Razali Ismail of Malaysia. Not only that, but a similar drive to purify the Non-Aligned Movement of undemocratic members was recently criticized as “partisan” by no less prestigious a newspaper than The Hindu, of NAM’s chief pillar, India.
Another weakness of the “sticks” approach is related to the European Union.
First, there is no evident unanimity on sanctions among the EU’s 15 member nations.
Second, the EU has derailed, for the sake of its justified dislike of Yangon, the whole process of institutionalized encounters between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the EU. (Only now are some hopes of such a meeting emerging, under the auspices of the Portuguese presidency.) If Europe wants to penalize Yangon, it can do so bilaterally, by downgrading diplomatic representation there, without hurting the whole body of ASEAN. Diplomacy works much better on the level of reciprocal representation in capitals than by excluding one undesirable minister from a region-to-region encounter.
Third, it is a sad fact that while this carousel is continuing to revolve about the issue of EU-ASEAN meetings, several EU enterprises quietly keep conducting private operations in Myanmar. It was only recently disclosed that the British government had pressured the British firm Premier Oil not to work with the junta. The company’s response, according to Agence France-Presse, was: “We strongly believe that dialogue engagement as well as sustainable development are key to effecting changes both now and in the future.”
This brings us to the core of the problem, which has been repeatedly stressed by democratic opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi: continuing foreign investment in Myanmar, not only from the West but also from Asia. “The prospect of economic benefits from doing business in Burma was too powerful,” admits Silverstein in a paper for the National Endowment for Democracy. In early 1989, he writes, Beijing sold Myanmar “more than $1 billion worth of new weapons on terms believed to be highly favorable.” Of course, everyone is aware of China’ s wider geopolitical concerns in the area, which dictate a positive engagement with the Myanmar regime.
As long as these two key factors — China and the influx of investment from private sources — remain, the Yangon regime is in a position to ignore all outside calls to restore freedom and human rights in Myanmar.
“Sanctions” is a frequently heard slogan in the West. They might have been the ultimate answer in other, analogous situations, but in the words of Annan himself, they have more often proven to be “a blunt and even counterproductive instrument.” There are always loopholes, compounded by a lack of universal enforcement, and, as Thailand’s deputy foreign minister pointed out last year, they have failed to yield results in China in the 1950s and ’60s, in Cuba since 1969 and in present-day Iraq. In addition, sanctions have had the apparent effect of leading Myanmar’s military to seek other sources of revenue, like supporting illegal drug exports, with devastating results, especially for neighboring Thailand.
The United States has created a legal framework to prohibit U.S. investment in Myanmar. But it seems that here again there are exemptions or areas not fully covered, for instance in the case of hotels, if one is to judge from protests by Myanmar’s democratic organizations.
So what is to be done? Answers remain elusive, but persistent, coordinated pressure on the regime, without penalizing either the Myanmar people or regional broader undertakings, may eventually lead to improvements that have to be acknowledged and applauded step by step. Academic gatherings on Myanmar, such as the one in Britain in 1998 and more recently in South Korea, are useful, since they quietly carry on examining new ideas and options, giving due consideration to China’s views as well, as an inevitable coplayer.
Finally, some more ideas worth considering: Coordination of international efforts; support for U.N. initiatives; discouragement of other governments from supporting the military junta; expansion of Europe’s legal framework for reducing or prohibiting private investment in Myanmar; and a general correction, in the West, of the contradiction of pontificating about liberty on the one hand and tolerating private or semi-private economic transactions with dictators on the other. May be, after all, the final solution will arise from dialogue between the generals and the opposition on how to achieve a smooth transition, as advised by some Myanmar monks, who best represent the soul of this deeply Buddhist nation.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.