Sanctions Aren’t the Problem

4th Jan 2011, Source from irrawaddy news,
By Dr Zarni, Dr Zarni (m.zarni) is research fellow on Burma at the London School of Economics and Political Economics

Following the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest this past November, a chorus of vociferous calls for the end to sanctions against the military-ruled Burma has been reverberating internationally. Business lobbies and the global development industry have jumped at the public relations opportunity that came with the generals’ decision to release the world’s best-known political dissident.
One immediately senses the seductive nature of the anti-sanctions narrative, designed to convey a mixture of moral and strategic concerns in the same breath. Let’s consider the promise of this new policy narrative against the empirical realities on the ground.

I was one of the foot soldiers among the Burmese dissidents who helped build the international campaign for sanctions against the Burmese regime in the 1990s. 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 enacted in 2003 were about to kill off the fledgling garment industry, which employed a fair number of ordinary Burmese.

Seven years on, here I am speaking out against the new anti-sanctions orthodoxy. This orthodoxy opts to overlook the elephant in the room, namely the excessively predatory and callous ruling military elite and the state organs which are used as an instrument of rent-seeking and repression.
Meanwhile, Western punitive measures including sanctions and denial of loans and development aid are scapegoated in this orthodoxy. Sanctions and associated policy measures are held responsible for the economic woes and miserable human conditions that envelop communities throughout Burma.

The new anti-sanctions advocates are promoting, either naively or self-servingly, foreign aid, trade and investment as the panacea for the country’s ills, while pinning hope on the emergence of a Burmese “middle class.” Being the parasites of 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 democratize institutions of power and wealth. Bangkok’s Thai middle class, which greeted the Red Shirts with scorn and disdain, and autocratic Singapore’s well-fed and -housed middle class immediately spring to mind.

The new anti-sanctions orthodoxy is pervasive among players with ties to foreign and local business interests, the global development industry and free-market ideologues dressed up as Burma experts, media personnel, diplomats and academics. In promoting this new policy discourse, they are joined by experts in international affairs and strategic studies, especially from countries which have most to gain from re-normalizing Burma’s half-century-old dictatorship.
Be that as it may, who in their right mind would object to genuinely progressive social and economic evolution, which will in due course benefit the locals while serving external commercial and strategic interests, without conflict, confrontation, upheaval, and bloodshed?

This school of evolutionary social change counsels the opposition to be more patient and the oppressed masses to offer their unconditional collaboration with their oppressors.
There is one major problem with this new orthodoxy, however. Its logic of gradual change through engagement, trade and development aid and loans has no empirical basis in the history of meaningful social change in dictatorships, East or West, where States and ruling elites were both criminally negligent towards citizens’ well-being and violently repressive to the population. In fact, the current anti-sanctions lobby is dangerously ill-informed about the concrete realities on the ground in today’s Burma.
Specifically, the abstract idea of evolutionary change in Burma ignores the particular characteristics of the country’s dictatorship that prevent investment from benefiting the masses.

These include the troubling feudal personality traits of the ruling senior and junior generals, the deeply structural nature of political and ethnic conflicts, the lack of any real—as opposed to anticipated—potential for change through the emerging move towards “civilianized” military rule post-election, the complete absence of any viable efforts on the part of the regime to seek lasting peace in the country, the non-existence of policy space for both existing and emerging political processes and institutions, and last but not least, the utter lack of technocratic competence and genuine concerns for public welfare among decision makers.
Some have argued that the post-election Burma carries seeds of evolutionary change with it.

First, these same advocates have also held up the military’s unmistakably regressive Constitution as “something better than outright dictatorship” (without any written formal guidelines), even when there is absolutely no change in the balance of institutional power in the post-election set up. Burma’s “Constitutional Military Rule” betrays both the letter and spirit of constitutionalism. For it legalizes, legitimizes, enshrines, ring-fences and delimits the de facto military rule—providing a sharp contrast to the essence of constitutionalism, which is to curb the arbitrary power of any ruling institution or class.

Second, the military’s ideological and institutional orientation has taken an unmistakably feudal turn, which makes it inconceivable for any reform potential arising from this very institution of power. It also structurally prevents trade or investment reaching beyond the hands of the feudal lords in modern soldier’s uniforms and their cronies. Over the past two decades, promoting the three dead warrior-kings of the long-collapsed Burmese empires as the military’s role models, the regime has subjected the military and the country’s officialdom to a regressive process of re-feudalization in terms of values, norms and worldviews.

Third, much has been made of the fact that the military is creating the trappings of a functioning democracy, namely political parties, a parliamentary system with different houses and nominal division of power. Realistically speaking, however, it is impossible to imagine a scenario where any serious reform initiatives or policies can be tabled, much less debated within the military’s parliament, which is bound to be the military’s rubber-stamp. These are obstacles to the democratization of political and economic spheres.
To begin with, the regime has permitted the largest pro-democracy political party, namely the National Democratic Front, made up of NLD renegades, a token inclusion in its official politics with only 1.5 percent of the total parliamentary seats, while declaring its own Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) a landslide winner with almost 80 percent of the contested seats, ensuring that it has near total control of what goes on in the parliamentary houses.
The ardent believers in the potential for parliamentary and policy space inherent in the form of a parliamentary system have chosen to overlook the type of anti-intellectual, anti-democratic professional practices and political culture in which the regime’s MPs, both “civilianized” soldiers and their brethren still in service, have been steeped. These men have spent decades learning the art of climbing the military and bureaucratic ladders solely through their unquestioning loyalty and utter obedience to their superior officers, executing orders, right or wrong. Therefore, the chances of the rubber-stamp parliament and its legislative processes influencing regime’s MP-elects (including ex-military officers, their cronies and other regime supporters) to think and act in a democratic manner that befit parliamentarians are absolutely non-existent.

Fourth, the issue of leadership transition has often been cited as an impetus for unconditional engagement with the military regime in hopes that the junior generals, in their late 50s and 60s, will be more open-minded, reform-oriented and forward-thinking. It is inconceivable that senior generals who are self-inflicted with militarist, feudal and (internally) ethno-imperialist worldviews will leave the reins of power in the hands of the juniors who think, feel and act significantly different from themselves.
To be sure, the regime is not a monolith and individual generals do have their differences in ideas, approaches, and interests. However, empirically and historically speaking, when it comes to liberalizing politics and redistributing wealth, Burmese military officers by and large have acted as a corporate entity, that is, a soldiering class with class views and interests.

Sixth, anti-sanctions advocates commonly place responsibility on Western sanctions—specifically, the denial of development aid and low level of humanitarian assistance—for the sorry state of human conditions in the military-ruled Burma. Usually, they point out that upwardly mobile Cambodia and Laos receive as much as 10 times more than Burma in foreign aid per capita, and make the case for increased aid for Burma.
And yet the same aid and trade advocates conveniently overlook the fact that the generals purchased from Russia a second squadron of state-of-the-art MiG-29 fighter-jets at a cost of nearly US $600 million within days after Joseph Stiglitz delivered his world-class economic advice to a group of junior generals in the regime’s capital of Naypyidaw, the “Abode of Kings,” that their country’s agricultural sector needs massive state investment. As the Burmese economist Dr U Myint has observed, Burma’s agri-based economic structure has remained virtually unchanged since the 1930s.

Seventh, these advocates of ending sanctions point out contemporary “developmental states” such as China and Vietnam as development models for Burma to emulate, de-linking freedoms from economic development. “Noble obligation” is a notion that has come to be associated with paternalistic ruling classes. Even if one disdains its inherent arrogance and usurpation of state power as a ruling ideology, it at least has some redeeming qualities. One-party autocracies in Beijing and Hanoi do make serious efforts to improve the material lot of the peoples under their respective rules, even when they deprive the latter of any meaningful voice in the country’s political and policy matters.

No such sentiment has been detected among the military leadership of Burma, either in “normal” or in catastrophic times (for instance, during Cyclone Nargis). It is difficult to swallow the painful truth that public well-being is not a policy priority as far as the ruling generals in Burma are concerned. The fact that less than 2 percent of the country’s national budget is allocated to the combined fields of public health and education speaks volume.
The latest Economic Intelligence Unit’s report on Burma for January 2011 observes thus: “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 the predatory and increasingly feudalist state institutions—will, in reality, remain the insurmountable obstacle to the trickle-down economic logic of the anti-sanctions lobby.
Still, in place of any concerted pressure on the regime towards putting public welfare on its policy radar, these anti-sanctions advocates from the business lobby and aid industry, both from the West and from Asia, offer unconditional engagement with the “stupid and dense” generals, to borrow Lee Kuan Yew’s adjectives in his specific reference to the Burmese business partners of his city-state.
The anti-sanctions lobby does get one thing right, however.

The unwavering backing of the Burmese dictatorship by its Asian neighbors—China, India and the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean)—has rendered Western sanctions and grassroots boycotts ineffectual and prevented them from playing the kind of strategically impactful role which they played 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 Aung San Suu Kyi at the London School of Economics, the efforts at democratization across Eastern Europe succeeded partly because the external geopolitical and ideological environment was conducive to internal struggles for democratization across the region.

The unfolding tragedy in Burma is that no such favorable external environment exists. Quite to the contrary, Burma’s economically predatory neighbors treat the country as merely a brothel where they can gratify their need for cheap labor and natural resources and as a strategic asset. They find it against their interests for the military regime to be replaced with a democratic government responsive to citizens’ livelihood needs. For instance, only a dictatorship with absolute disregard for public well-being would have signed a multi-billion dollar deal such as the Dawei Development Project, which allows a Thai-Italian conglomerate to set up, among other things, socially and ecologically harmful refineries which will emit massive pollutants into the sky above Burma’s southern coast line. According to an article in The International Herald Tribune (“An Industrial Project That Could Change Myanmar,” Nov. 26, 2010), Thailand’s Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, assured his fellow Thais in his weekly television address two months ago that dirty industries are moving to Burma: “Some industries are not suitable to be located in Thailand. This is why they decided to set up there [in Dawei].” How lovely!

There is little wonder, then, that the future for the peoples of Burma looks rather grim. They are not simply up against their country’s “stupid” generals and their repressive security forces, but also at the mercy of unscrupulous foreign interests.

The anti-sanctions orthodoxy should be understood for what it is—the promotion of the West’s strategic national and corporate interests, which will further entrench military rule, in whatever guise, by giving it a veneer of normalcy and acceptability. Ending the sanctions now will not prove to be an effective move towards political and economic development for the people.

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