Progress is stifled by a stale debate

The issue of sanctions, mercifully marginalised in Burma political discourse by the lead up to and aftermath of November 2010 elections, is back again. In the past months, the popular press, think tanks, advocacy groups, and Burma watcher list-servs have dusted off the instruments and begun to play the same old tune, ostensibly debating the political efficacy of maintaining political and economic sanctions on Burma’s de facto ruling regime.

I say ‘ostensibly debating’ not to advance a conspiracy-theory that there’s something insidious going on here. But rather to highlight how predictable, how tired, how stale the debate is; like watching a re-run on television, subconsciously we already know how it’s going to end. And as such, it’s hard to call the current discourse a debate. That doesn’t mean that the stubborn persistence of talk about sanctions isn’t meaningful, however; rather, that this repetition without difference signifies an inability to think a different form of politics in Burma. That the recurrence of this discourse – and particularly that it’s coming mostly from groups who are located outside of Burma itself – point to the fact that Burma’s oppositional politics are formed, channelled, and even captured by actors who are peripheral to the place where politics really happens.

The irony, given all the acrimony, is how marginal sanctions are – at least on a material level. They only slightly affect the junta, given that the generals’ transactions with China, India, and ASEAN countries keep them vastly wealthy. Further, sanctions likely affect Burma’s poor only slightly as well – ultimately, the junta’s mismanagement of the economy and its destruction of human capital are vastly more relevant than the potential impact of Western companies. By the same token, revoking sanctions would also have minor material effects: foreign direct investment is not the missing variable through which the junta can be developed around. Moreover, economic analysis suggests that the effects of a potential rapid liberalisation of the economy without concomitant political changes could lead to mixed outcomes: short-term positive-sum gains would help the most vulnerable, particularly in the capital-starved agricultural sector. And yet, this immediate low-hanging fruit might give way to an even more brutal capitalist-authoritarianism, as rents captured from these increasing economic transactions may buttress the state’s ability to rationalise its extraction apparatus, allowing it to expropriate even more surplus from peasants. In other words, liberalisation will not help if most of the benefit goes to the state (and as inflation caused by a growing economy claws back at any residual gains not stolen).

These facts are not necessarily lost on most partisans, on either side. What is relevant, despite these limited material effects, are the significant symbolic political meanings supposedly contained in sanctions. Maintaining them is meant to give the regime a black-eye and to demonstrate solidarity with the opposition, empowering them to fight on while simultaneously providing a tool for reform; revoking them is meant to impel further progressive changes, coaxing a besieged regime out of its paranoiac shell.

But while these functional, path-dependent arguments often make for sound performative debate, I fear that they have the supplemental effect of overstating the importance of the symbolic meaning of sanctions – especially given the significant political and economic changes that have occurred as the regime withstood the assault of sanctions. As such, the sanctions debate has slid from a mere means (a tool to a larger end), to almost approaching that end in itself: the symbol has become larger than life, inflated by news articles, congressional hearings, and position papers. And in that process, sanctions has moved into the role of the central political question, becoming a platform for debates mostly between external audiences.

The unfortunate aspect of this is when countries and outside actors unilaterally thrust the sanctions issue again to the forefront, they effectively silence the voice of political actors in the country.

Lost in the tumult is an incredibly incisive political-economic analysis from the key opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), that highlights many of the ways sanctions are irrelevant; what is striking is how fundamentally reactive their document is, how the NLD seems compelled to respond to “the sanctions question” raised from the outside. Indeed, the document opens by mentioning the rise in calls to end sanctions, and closes by taking the audacious tack of distancing the party from sanctions entirely (“Sanctions are the result of decisions made by the countries concerned, not the outcome of demands by political parties, organizations or individuals in Burma.”).

Whether the NLD’s historical relationship with sanctions has always been so hands off is debatable. But if that’s the new narrative they want to construct, I’m not going to link to evidence suggesting otherwise. Their current distancing from sanctions signifies both the double-edged sword of relying on the “international community”, and also the hope that the opposition is finally escaping its political dependency on that fictive community. Sanctions, like the international community, are no magic bullet. They are a tool like any other, one that the NLD seems finally willing to wield strategically: by distancing itself from the policy itself, the NLD is free to use sanctions as a bargaining chip with the regime, or repudiate them entirely as a strategy for beginning to do politics inside the country again. The opposition needs to own the process; only the opposition can re-invest sanctions with a political meaning that has largely been drained from them over the years.

Otherwise, whatever political content sanctions could hold for those internal actors is pre-empted. For instance, one of the clearly new things inserted into the debate has been that stalwart supporters of sanctions are now willing to revisit them. Indeed, the United States and Germany have intimated recently that they may want to end sanctions; but their respective unilateral reviews – without seeming to allow the internal opposition to drive the process – seems like a cynical and self-interested attempt to reinstate strategic interests in a region increasingly dominated by China (betraying perhaps a cynical and self-interested motivation to maintain sanctions for so long: sanctions served the symbolic goal of looking good on human rights in a strategically meaningless country; now that China needs to be contained, human rights become expendable). The opposition groups could be free to reject a leadership role – but at least it should be offered.

Ah, but who is ‘the opposition’ anyway? Perhaps the desired change in US and German policy suggests that the role the NLD played for so long is no longer desirable. Beneath the tired sanctions debate external actors are negotiating and fighting over how to shape the opposition itself. This form of external meddling is so natural that we don’t even notice it.

Thus I conclude with this tentative suggestion: maybe we should forget sanctions altogether. Not necessarily revoke them – leave them as they are (the bad cop to the opposition’s good), but make a move at a right-angle to the current debate by insisting that the very talking about them gets in the way of the real politics. This is not to turn our backs on Burma, to leave them to the whims of an abusive regime; emphatically not. It is rather to think of new ways of doing that politics: thinking through what strategies, technologies, apparatuses, will facilitate the re-entrance of the average Burmese person into politics. Mining the politics of the everyday is a clear point of re-entry for oppositional groups in Burma; crafting non-adversarial political narratives surrounding what democracy means after the 2010 elections (what does it mean to be an active citizen, an engaged member of the polity?) may give currently acquiescent civil society new ways of engaging local people, thus re-orienting current political relationships. Only by doing this will things like sanctions (and international criminal courts, and human rights law, and ‘naming and shaming’) regain their potency, and we can actually have a real debate again.

Elliott Prasse-Freeman is currently an MPA-ID student at the Harvard Kennedy School, and is leading a number of research projects through the university’s Human Rights and Social Movements Program. He spent five years working in international development for various agencies—from the UN to international NGOs—where he directed projects in Burma, India, Thailand, and other countries in Southeast Asia.

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