New Myanmar is the hell-hole old Burma (Pt. 2)

Can the world do anything unilaterally, rather than only through listening to the confusion that the military regime wants, to cultivate about what is really going on inside Burma? This brings me to the subject of sanctions and embargoes.

There are a lot of complex issues but also some things made more complex than they need be. If the reasoning presented so far is correct, then it’s right to expect that the regime would worry least about those embargoes that harm the general population and most about those that hit things about which they particularly care – because that is the nature of the incentives; it is not like a case of hitting a government country where the government is actually bent on the well-being of the people. What we need is identification of targeted sanctions, and a replacement of restrictions that can hurt the general population with sanctions that target the rulers in particular.

There is a timing issue here and some observers are understandably worried about the signalling that will go with any reduction of sanctions at all at this time. If the announcement about the lifting, of any kind of lifting, were to come shortly after the fraudulent election, since any lifting might be misconstrued as a belief that has now emerged that there is some hope that there are better things to come from military rule. This is, indeed, a serious concern. But I don’t really think that this is likely to happen if the strategy behind targeted sanctions, and taking into account the incentives involved, is fully explained loudly and clearly. The lifting of non-targeted sanctions has to be combined simultaneously with specific embargoes that hit the military regime in general and the rulers in particular.

The combined changes have to be announced not as a lifting of sanctions, but with clarity about how to make the sanctions more effective, aiming not at the general population, but at the rulers at whom the sanctions are addressed. The constraining of oppressive powers of the regime and the facilities that dictatorial rulers seek for themselves is the issue at hand and it’s really the articulation of that that is clue to the timing issue.

So what are these targeted restrictions?  At the top of the list must be an embargo on arms and armament of all kinds, and the removal of any military assistance that the Burmese government gets in a direct or an indirect way.  Similarly, financial restrictions can impact on those trades in which regime leaders are particularly involved. This is a large list varying from particular minerals and gems, jade and others, to oil and gas, and there will be a strong need for examining the pros and cons of each of these putative candidates for restriction, taking into account the impact of the contemplated actions, both on the general population, which has to be avoided as much as possible, and on the tyrannical leaders – the beneficiaries of the system – who are being targeted.

Travel bans on individuals running the regime are also an important area of action that can be contemplated. Some of the top leaders of the military regime seem to be eccentric enough in their behaviour pattern to have no interest in travel outside Burma. But many of the active operators are interested in being able to move freely across the world, which can lift their own localized lifestyles, help them to get medical attention when needed, and also allow them to conduct business profitably to themselves and to the regime.

This is of course not the occasion to try to draw up anything like a specific list of what should be placed under more control and what sanctions should be relaxed and reduced, but the general principle should be clear: the object of sanctions is not to make the population undergo hardship for the sins of the rulers, but to restrict the tyrants and the oppressors in the regime. The philosophy of sanctions has to be understood with clarity and explained with very strong responsibilities of particular countries rather than the world at large. There are certainly significant asymmetries in what the different governments can do, and the roles of the neighbours are particularly important for the operation of the Burmese military regime.

The Chinese government is the most important player in this area, both because it has done business with the regime for a long time and has provided indirect patronage to the regime. And given its veto power in the Security Council, its support is especially important for the Burmese rulers. Chinese trade and business are extensive in the country. These interests apply not only to oil and gas exploration, but also, very extensively, to general business. From what I understand from visitors to Mandalay – I have not been there since I was six – it is now largely a Chinese-run city.

To emphasize the special role of China is not any reason for not scrutinizing the roles of other countries in the region, particularly India and Thailand. Both of these countries have extensive business relations with Burma, free trade agreement from the regime, and in the case of India, also getting Burmese help with dealing with some rebellions in the Northeastern region of India that borders on Burma. At one level, it’s not hard to see why India and Thailand, in addition to China, have been tolerant of the Burmese regime and indeed supportive of it through political relations.

And yet the violation of the political morality in these relations is extraordinarily acute. I have to say that as a loyal Indian citizen, and as the only country I’m a citizen of, it breaks my heart to see the Prime Minister of my democratic country, and as it happened, since I know him well, one of the most humane and sympathetic political leaders in the world, engaged in welcoming the butchers from Burma and to be photographed in the state of cordial proximity.

I’m also concerned that public discussion of the Burmese situation and India’s Burma policy has been so conspicuous by its near absence in India. This is not because there is any kind of governmental restriction of discussion on this subject or any fear of public penalty for expressing disapproval of the government of India’s stand on Burma. The newspapers are quite ready to carry any such critique. I know from my own personal experience that when I expressed my total disagreement with the Indian government’s policy on Burma at a public meeting in New Delhi, chaired as it happened by the Prime Minister himself, the papers were perfectly willing to report fully my concerns and my thesis.

The problem arises rather from a change in the political climate in India, in which now, what is taken to be national interest, gets much loyalty, and India’s past propensity to lecture the world on global political morality is seen as a sad memory of Nehruvian naiveté. It’s worth remembering that after the military takeover of Burma, the government of India did for a great many of years provide support for the democracy movement in Burma and particularly with Aung San Suu Kyi, who happens to be a graduate of Delhi University before she went to Oxford. As India has redefined itself, partly in imitation of China, the country has increasingly been dominated by much narrower national concerns than those that moved Gandhi and Nehru.

If there is going to be a change here, the best hope for it in India lies certainly in arousing public interest in this issue.  The findings of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on the happenings in Burma, indeed the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry on Burma, would make headlines in Indian news coverage and will certainly influence political dialogue within India.

In some respect, the situation is similar in Thailand as well.  And I have to say that some of the papers there have indeed carried editorials criticizing Thai policy regarding Burma and Burmese refugees in Thailand. In my last trip to Thailand, to Bangkok, I saw a main editorial in The Nation that was very critical on that. As an avenue of change for Burma, this is not an easy route to public discussion. But it would be silly not to pursue this, and silly also to underestimate its ultimate power in countries like India and Thailand, even as other policies are pursued across the globe about tackling the ruthless dictators of modern Myanmar.

There are so many issues to discuss that I can’t cover within my limited time, but I’m looking forward to the Q and A, but I end this presentation on the use of reasoning and incentives with three final observations:

First it is hard to persuade governments like India, Thailand, or for that matter, China, that their policies regarding Burma, are exceptionally crude and valuationally gross, if the Western countries with their sharper rhetoric in denouncing Myanmar, do not do what is entirely within their power to do with their own Burmese involvement. Several European countries, as well as countries elsewhere, have strong business relations with Burma, for example, in oil exploration. At a different level, neither the European Union nor the United States, nor Switzerland, Australia, or Canada, has used their power of financial strength against the regime, demanding substantial change in their policies. This makes it harder to press the offending neighbours when global action is so limited. It is for this reason, among others, that a greater global awareness and more concerned global action would be very important in bringing about a real change in the situation in Burma – both in terms of the direct impact in Burma as well as on its impact on the neighbouring countries to Burma.

Second, provincial reasoning for any country’s so-called national interest calls not only for thoughts regarding here and now, but also about the future, indeed even the long-run future. This applies as much to China as it does to India and Thailand. Given the history of oppressive regimes in the world, the tyrants of Burma will sooner or later fall. The memory of the turmoil of Burmese people will last well beyond that. There are some lessons of history here and some analogies to draw on. The United States might have thought that it was doing what the US administration imagined to be in the US national interest in supporting brutal right-wing dictators in Latin America in the world of yesterday. But the intensity of anti-Americanism that is one of the most potent forces in contemporary Latin American politics today brings the culpability of the past into the attitudes and reflections of the present. The ghost of today will haunt the present-day collaborators of military butchers, tomorrow.

Third, there is a kind of defeatism about Burma which seems to have caught hold of the thinking of many people in the world who worry about Burma, but feel no hope of real change, and thus look for little mercy, that I think is a very serious issue to be concerned. I think we have to be more forward-looking, more confident that with more reasoned public effort across the globe a great deal more could be achieved and things could change. It is important, to begin to talk about what forgiveness. But of course the sight of forgiveness, the possibility of forgiveness, brings about the possibility of non-forgiveness, of that situation.  It’s a very good time to think, not just about tomorrow, next month, next year, but what at the end, of where the Burmese leaders would go, where would they find refuge, would they get some kind of immunity, which would be generous. I think we have to change the dialogue in that direction. The dialogue is much, much too defeatist today, and this is I think one of the problems that bothers me most as I think about what’s going on in Burma today.

Towards the end of March 1999, when I was at Trinity College in Cambridge, I received a phone call one morning from one of my old friends from Oxford, Michael Aris, the husband of Aung San Suu Kyi. I knew that he was extremely ill from prostate cancer then. I knew also that it had metastasized and we knew that his time was coming to an end. Michael told me in this rather unexpected but very powerfully articulated call, as he had done many times earlier, that the one focus of his life was to help Suu Kyi.  Despite his illness, he sounded adamant, and explained to me, even as his voice was fading over the phone, the need for focus in confronting Burmese tyrants. “Make no mistake, Amartya,” Michael told me, “this disease will not, it cannot, kill me. I have to recover and be active again to help my Suu and my Burma.” This was on the 24 March 1999.  I received a call on the 27 March that Michael had died.  It was, as it happens, also his birthday.

Michael Aris is no longer here to tell us that we must have focus in our action, but his parting message is important. We can control and confront the tyrants – do our duty to Burma – only if we do not lose focus. The need for that concentration has never been greater than it is today, when the monstrosities of the regime continue undiminished; when the preordained electoral arraignments confuse and confound well-meaning people; when the world seems at a loss about what can be done to help the Burmese people. There is everything to fight for, with clarity and with reason.

This article is adapted from a speech given on 20 September for Human Rights Watch by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, and titled ‘A Return to Civilian Rule?’

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