Reading between the anti-sanctions line

Most people arguing for the removal of sanctions tend to hark to a noble cause: the people of Burma, attending to an impoverishment that started long before sanctions were in place. But so noble an argument is unfortunately wholly wrong, and whether wrong for the right reasons, or wrong because of ulterior motives, Burma’s poverty does not hinge upon trade.

If anything it is impossible to assert that sanctions have not worked, purely because they have barely existed – one cannot claim the policy is ‘counterproductive’ if those same sanctions allow German companies such as Deckel Maho Gildemeister (DMG) or Trumpf to sell machine parts to the military. The same goes for the major oil multinationals Total, Chevron and Transocean, whilst European countries seem to wilfully ignore their banks like UBS and Barclays who clean dirty money for those on the sanctions list.

Meanwhile in San Francisco’s Chinatown, vendors wilfully boast of the fact that their jade is Burmese, despite Bush’s JADE Act which banned the import of that commodity, and many more. The same cannot be said of Cuban cigars, however, the selling of which is viewed as almost treasonous.

It may then be worth remembering the embargo or ‘bloquero’ on that island as we look at Western policy to Burma, for Cuba makes Burma’s own much-discussed sanctions look like an Oval office joke, up there with Monica’s cigars.

Cuba’s sanctions came in 1962 when its government nationalised American-owned assets on the impoverished island, which had only just removed the US-backed Batista dictatorship. This crossing of such a fervent US threshold apparently warranted some of the most drastic sanctions ever known, which was cursed by the proximity to its giant adversary.

Strangely, sanctions for a change in economic policy were much deeper and harder than anything that Burma has known, for the egregious human rights violations of the generals. As Obama suggested, sanctions on Cuba are “in the national interest of the United States”.

Over time Cuban sanctions have only gotten stricter, so much so that Clinton in 1996 closed the subsidiary clause, which happens to be the favoured mechanism for the likes of French-US telecoms giant Alcatel Lucent, which is alleged to supply the means for the Burmese junta to spy on their own people through the company’s Shanghai branch.

We do not hear people calling for the removal of US sanctions on Cuba; they haven’t given the assets back to the US companies. But what have sanctions on Cuba done to the people of that country?

Pre-embargo Cuba was not dissimilar to Burma: a third of the population lived in poverty, only 15 percent of rural households had running water and pre revolution the country was in thrall to US capital as vast swathes of the economy were owned by companies from the north.

Today however, after nearly 50 years of sanctions, Cuba has a higher level of human development than Hong Kong, and with a score of 0.863, ranks alongside Spain in the Human Development Index (HDI). It also has an infant mortality rate of 5.1 per 1000 live births, down from 39.2 at the time sanctions were enacted in 1962. The US’s meanwhile is 6.3, while Burma’s is 53.8.

In other words, sanctions on Cuba have not caused the ‘poor people’ of that country to fail that most basic of human indices, the right to survive their first birthday.

How would sanctions on Burma mean that 53.8 babies out of every 1000 don’t make their first birthday? Burma is not surrounded by a belligerent navy, and there is nothing stopping Burmese traders from importing a multitude of products from neighbouring countries. It also has an immense capability to grow food and under British rule was the world’s largest exporter of rice, hence its former nickname, ‘the rice bowl of Asia’.

Cuba does not have the finest jade, gems and rubies in the world, nor does she have billions of dollars worth of natural gas to sell, nor the last hardwood forests in Southeast Asia to plunder.

When ‘experts’ like Marie Lall from the British foreign policy think tank Chatham House assert that sanctions have undoubtedly “contributed to stagnation and impoverishment” what is she referring too? People don’t generally “stagnate” – economies do. It’s worth noting that Chatham House is funded by none other than Chevron and Total, the two oil companies who, contrary to sanctions, are busy profiting from Burma’s natural gas.

Lall claims to also advise the German government on their Burma policy. The ‘South Asia expert’ has 15 years experience in the region in countries which do not, as she laments of Burma, receive only $US5 per head in aid. She also has worked for Myanmar Egress, a position funded by the German think tank Friedrich Ebert Stiftung.

Indeed as European countries are dismantling their long-held aid missions to India, the nuclear powered ‘shining’ nation that started to open up to foreign business at around the time Lall was gaining her experience, we should all be aware that its openness has not achieved the desired results, with more than 40 percent of India’s children malnourished.

The openness and aid that Lall craves for Burma, as enunciated in her call to end sanctions, has not led to the results that she allegedly wants in other countries, with India’s infant mortality and child hunger levels remaining much worse than those of Cuba.

In other words, there is no evidence that the supposed aims of the anti-sanctions lobby will be served by trade with the West. Their real reasons then are, if they are rational or informed, likely to be more political or economic than anything.

It is perfectly valid to believe that the practical political implications of sanctions are not effective – they haven’t resulted in a demonstrable change in the governance of Burma, despite the belief of many anti-sanctions people who assert that ‘we should do business’ now the junta has held elections.

Why did the junta hold elections? The main reason, most people would probably agree, is not that they are inherent democrats but that they craved legitimacy. Their illegitimacy was reinforced by sanctions and the sentiment they express. So if, as the International Crisis Group (whose corporate partners include Chevron) assert, small progress has been made with the elections, the assertion that sanctions do not work is logically flawed because for them they have had results – the elections.

Legitimacy is a major issue here, one which when viewed from the outside is often about as important to the West as Hosni Mubarak’s torture victims. The missing link with sanctions lifters is their relative appreciation of legitimacy – they would not be satisfied with the legitimacy of the current government in their own country, but are perfectly happy for it to suffice for the Burmese public.

Moreover if trade, as many claim, is good for the Burmese people, what’s wrong with the Chinese or Thais doing it? Why do we need your funders in there Marie?

If nations have a foreign policy it should reflect onto others the political legitimacy and aims with which they hold for themselves. If you believe in military rule, please send your DMG metal cutters and Chevron drills to help fund this “cause” (Lall may also get a pay rise), and if you believe in the right of a people to choose their own destiny then opposition is all you can offer to those that deny that right.

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