Anti-sanctions chorus out of tune

BANGKOK: A chorus of international calls is on the rise to end the economic and financial sanctions Western countries led by the United States have maintained against Myanmar's military regime. Business lobbies and the global aid industry have jumped at November's rigged elections and the release of pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest as a public relations opportunity to push their narrow objectives in Myanmar, also known as Burma.

I was once among the Burmese dissidents who in the 1990s helped to build an international campaign for sanctions against Myanmar's rights-abusing regime. A decade later, I publicly challenged what was then known as the pro-sanctions orthodoxy, particularly when it became apparent that Washington's blanket sanctions were about to kill off the country's fledging garment industry that employed a large number of ordinary workers.

Seven years on, I am speaking out against the new anti-sanctions lobby. The called-for policy shift overlooks the elephant in the room, namely the predatory and callous ruling military elite and the state organs they use as instruments for rent-seeking and repression. Western punitive measures, including economic sanctions and the denial of loans and development aid, are often held responsible for the economic misery and woe that envelop communities throughout Myanmar.

But the economic promise of the growing anti-sanctions lobby doesn't match the empirical realities on the ground. Like the sanctions regime of the previous decade, the lobby is waxing about morality and long-term strategy. Anti-sanctions advocates are promoting, either naively or self-servingly, foreign aid, trade and investment as a panacea for the country's ills while pinning hope on the emergence of a Burmese middle class who with economic clout will demand more political rights.

Arising mainly from autocratic or feudal political systems, Southeast Asia's middle classes lack the progressive potential for democratization and meaningful development, unlike the original bourgeois of the old Europe which brought down the feudal ruling elites and helped to democratize institutions of power and wealth. Bangkok's Thai middle class that greeted the "red shirt" grassroots movement with scorn and disdain and autocratic Singapore's well-fed and apolitical middle class spring to mind as apathetic examples.

The new anti-sanctions orthodoxy is pervasive among players with ties to foreign and local business interests and the global aid industry. This policy departure is also gaining resonance among free-market ideologues dressed up as Myanmar experts, Western media, diplomats and certain academics. They are joined by a growing contingent of experts in international affairs and strategic studies, especially in countries which have much to gain economically and strategically from normalizing relations with Myanmar's dictatorship.

However there is one major problem with the new anti-sanctions orthodoxy: its 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 West. In fact, the emerging anti-sanctions consensus is dangerously ill-informed about the hard realities on the ground in today's Myanmar.

Specifically, the abstract idea of evolutionary change in Myanmar ignores the particular characteristics of the country's dictatorship that prevent investment from benefiting the masses. These traits include the feudal mindsets of the ruling senior and junior generals, the deeply structural nature of political and ethnic conflicts, an utter deficit of technocratic competence and concern for public welfare, and the lack of any real - as opposed to anticipated - potential for change through the emerging move towards "civilianized" military rule after November's rigged elections. (The new parliament is expected to be functioning by February.)

Some have argued that November's elections, which were won overwhelmingly by military-backed candidates, carry the seeds of evolutionary political change. These same advocates have also held up the military's unmistakably regressive constitution as something better than outright dictatorship, even though it brought about no change in the balance of institutional power in the post-election set up.

While the military has allowed for the trappings of a functioning democracy, including the creation of political parties, a parliamentary system with different houses and a nominal division of power, realistically there will be no room for serious reform initiatives or policies to be tabled, much less debated, within the new military-controlled parliament. Instead it will likely act as a pliant rubber stamp, as seen in Asia's other military-influenced "democracies".

Wishful thinking 

The regime has permitted the country's largest pro-democracy political party, namely the National Democratic Front, made up of former National League for Democracy renegades, only token inclusion in its democratic politics through a mere 1.5% of seats in parliament. Its own Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), a landslide winner with almost 80% of the contested seats, on the other hand will have near total control of regional and national parliamentary houses.

It is important to understand that most of the regime's "civilianized" parliamentarians have spent decades as soldiers learning the art of climbing the military and bureaucratic ladders solely through their unquestioning loyalty and obedience to their superior officers by executing their orders, right or wrong. It is highly unlikely that these MP-elects (including ex-military officers, their cronies and other regime supporters) will think and act in a democratic and independent manner.

Some analysts have stated hopes that more junior generals, including those in their late 50s and early 60s, will be more open-minded and reform-oriented with the transition towards civilian rule. Yet it seems just as unlikely that senior ruling generals would willingly hand the reins of power to junior officers who think, feel and act significantly different from themselves.

To be sure, Myanmar's regime is not monolithic and individual generals have differences in ideas, approaches, and interests. But historic and empirical evidence shows that Myanmar's military officers have tended to act as a corporate entity in promoting its own interests, particularly in matters related to wealth distribution and political liberalization.

Anti-sanctions advocates also place too much responsibility on Western sanctions, specifically the denial of development aid and low levels of humanitarian assistance, for the sorry state of Myanmar's beleaguered and impoverished population. They often point to now upwardly mobile Cambodia and Laos, which both receive as much as 10 times more in foreign aid per capita than Myanmar, as a case for the benefits of bolstered aid flows.

And yet the same aid and trade advocates conveniently overlook the fact that Myanmar's ruling generals recently purchased from Russia a second squadron of state-of-the-art MiG-29 fighter-jets at the cost of nearly US$600 million. The purchase came just days after economist Joseph Stiglitz delivered his world-class economic advice to a group of junior generals in the regime's capital Naypyidaw, or the Abode of Kings, that their country's agricultural sector requires massive state investment. As the Burmese economist U Myint has observed, Myanmar's agri-based economic structure remains virtually unchanged since the 1930s - despite the fact the regime now earns billions of dollars annually in energy sales.

Others have pointed to China and Vietnam, where political freedoms and economic development are delinked, as possible development models for Myanmar to emulate. "Noble obligation" is a notion that has come to be associated with paternalistic ruling classes. The one-party autocracies in Beijing and Hanoi have made serious efforts to improve the material lot of their populations, even when they deprive them of any meaningful voice in the country's political and policy matters.

No such public obligation has yet been detected among Myanmar's military rulers, neither in normal times nor in times of crisis as witnessed in the regime's callous and incompetent response to the Cyclone Nargis disaster in 2008. The fact that less than 2% of the country's national budget is allocated to the combined fields of public health and education speaks to this lack of concern.

The latest Economist Intelligence Unit report on Myanmar observes, "In terms of fiscal policy, the government is likely to continue to focus on spending heavily on the military, and it will do little in the way of implementing policies to support households and businesses." The regime - and its predatory and increasingly feudalist state institutions - will thus remain the insurmountable obstacle to the trickle-down economic logic of the anti-sanctions lobby.

The anti-sanctions lobby does get one thing right, however. The unwavering backing of Myanmar's dictatorship by its Asian neighbors, including China, India and economically advanced members of the Association of South East Asian Nations, has rendered Western sanctions and boycotts ineffectual. That's prevented the punitive measures from having the impact they had in the successful fight against apartheid in South Africa.

As Timothy Garton Ash, professor of European Studies at Oxford University, pointed out in a recent live dialogue with pro-democracy icon Suu Kyi at the London School of Economics, the post-Cold War efforts at democratization across Eastern Europe succeeded partly because the external geopolitical and ideological environment was at the time conducive to internal struggles for democratization. Suu Kyi has until now backed the West's sanctions. But the unfolding tragedy in Myanmar is that the favorable external environment for organic democratization no longer exists.

To the contrary, Myanmar's opportunistic neighbors continue to treat the country as a brothel of cheap labor and source of natural resources. Indeed, several of these countries would find it against their interests for the military regime to be replaced with a truly democratic government, one that was responsive to its citizens' basic needs and livelihoods.

The emerging anti-sanctions lobby should be understood for what it is - the bald promotion of Western strategic and corporate interests. Ending sanctions now will only further entrench military rule, giving it a veneer of normalcy and acceptability, at the expense of Myanmar's long-suffering people and the country's equitable economic development.

Maung Zarni is a visiting senior fellow at Chulalongkorn University's Institute of Security and International Studies and a research fellow on Myanmar/Burma at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He may be reached atm.zarni@lse.ac.uk .

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