In his Aug. 29 article, “U.S. should engage Burma,” Brahma Chellaney makes some good points concerning U.S. sanctions against the military regime in Burma: that these sanctions have failed in their stated purpose to promote democracy and human rights; that they have increased China’s already large influence inside the country; and that they reflect a double standard — why trade with China, but not with Burma?
But he is mistaken to assume that it is “U.S.-led sanctions” that have made Burma’s people among the poorest in Asia. Responsibility for that rests squarely with Than Shwe and his fellow generals, who have squandered funds on new weapons purchased abroad and on the costly new capital city at Naypyidaw, rather than investing in health, education and other improvements in the people’s standard of living. Their management of the economy has been grossly incompetent, including a complex and counterproductive system of multiple currency exchange rates and a complete lack of the rule of law in business as well as in other spheres of life.
By contrast, after it adopted liberalization policies in 1986, communist Vietnam did very well for itself despite a U.S. embargo that wasn’t lifted until 1994. Washington should take modest first steps in opening up to the regime: perhaps appointing an ambassador to its embassy, still in Rangoon — there hasn’t been one since the early 1990s — cutting back on often hypocritical rhetoric about human rights, and continuing to pursue dialogue with Burma’s leaders.
Humanitarian aid should be dramatically increased. Washington should adopt a “wait and see” attitude concerning the general election next year. But it is premature to drop all economic sanctions as long as the junta persecutes ethnic minorities like the Karens and Shans and holds more than 2,000 political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi.