Blood Money in Burma

Western democracies like to take the moral high ground on human rights. Their actions on Burma undermine this.

By Zaw Nay Aung for

The US Senate has approved the renewal of a ban on Burmese imports that is part of the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act of 2003. The House approved the sanctions bill in July, and so the agreement is expected to get the signature of President Barack Obama soon. This is welcome, as were the words of US special envoy Derek J. Mitchell, who concluded a five-day visit to the country last week with comments arguing that the Burmese regime needs to take concrete steps over dialogue with the opposition, the release of political prisoners and investigating human rights abuses. 

The problem is that words aren't always being followed up with action in Western nations.

Since the 2010 elections, the Burmese regime has grown increasingly tactical in its dealings with the opposition and international community. It’s unclear whether the supreme leader of the regime, Than Shwe, has completely left the political arena, but the post-election strategic moves of former Gen. Thein Sein have certainly become more calculated.

Thein Sein appears to be using a little sweet talk and some cunning diplomacy to demonstrate that he can change the way the international community sees the government. Now clad in civilian garb, the president of the ‘new’ government has made powerful speeches on economic and political reforms. Yet, in the past few months, no substantive or tangible changes have actually been seen. It’s certainly true that there’s no quick fix to the decades-long political and economic stagnation that plagues Burma. But there also hasn’t yet been any sign of much-needed progress in terms of basic rights and freedoms, such as the release of political prisoners.

The continued incarceration of more than 2,000 political prisoners, as well as the need for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy to re-register as a political party, is testament to the unshakeable attitudes of the old dictatorship. Furthermore, the regime is still using various forms of diplomacy to try to gain global recognition as an ‘elected and democratic’ government. To secure its bid to chair ASEAN for the 2014 summit, and with an eye on avoiding the possible establishment of a UN commission of inquiry into alleged abuses, the Thein Sein administration has started to feign acceptance of political opposition.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

But despite the largely superficial changes in Burmese politics, calls to end sanctions against the regime have been growing louder since the beginning of this year. No matter whether one views the elections and subsequent developments as progress, many still have doubts over the efficacy of Western sanctions against the regime. Furthermore, many observers argue that sanctions hurt the people rather than the ruling generals. Given the apparent improvements in Burma—the release of Suu Kyi and the emergence of a parliament (albeit one dominated by the military)—the sanctioning states have in recent months been pressed to withdraw their punitive measures.

Suu Kyi and the NLD called for an independent analysis of sanctions in November 2010. No such initiative has yet taken place. In the midst of contradictory views from both pro-sanction and anti-sanction groups, the countries imposing punitive actions should review their measures and renew them accordingly. In the current political climate in Burma, it’s vital that the sanctions controversy is clearly seen to be resolved.

Burma Independence Advocates, a human rights advocacy and think tank based in London, recently published an assessment of the political and humanitarian conditions under sanctions. It showed that the direct impact of sanctions on humanitarian conditions has been negligible. And, although sanctions have so far failed to have a significant impact on Burmese politics, it’s important to understand that it isn’t the sanctions themselves that are at fault, but the way they have been implemented and enforced.

While the majority of sanctions are targeted, those that could have dealt a significant blow to the regime were implemented far too late. Meanwhile, sanctioning countries have continued to invest in a nation still rife with persecution. The continued heavy investment in Burma by the EU and United States between 1995 and 2005 also raises questions over the consistency of their Burma policy.

It’s easy to point fingers at Burma’s neighbours—ASEAN countries and China—and chastise them for their economic ties with the regime. But one doesn’t have to look far to see the influence of Western companies. For example, the continued presence over the past two decades of Western oil companies such as Chevron and Total shows that sanctioning countries prefer Burmese oil to the Burmese people’s freedom. The blood money that the regime has accumulated was never intended for Burma’s citizens, but instead for buying weapons, building up military academies, and sending scholars to Russia to learn about nuclear technology.

Yet, there are still many who believe Burma should receive development assistance and who naively think the regime would spend this overseas aid wisely on making the country a better place in which to live. Just as the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) of General Ne Win turned the country into one of the poorest in the world despite having received substantial overseas assistance, there’s no sign the new generation of military leaders would put this aid to good use. Indeed, the post-1988 regime has extended its defence capabilities dramatically compared with its predecessor, the BSPP. Over the past two decades, for example, about 20 percent of government expenditure has been on defence, while the army has swelled to more than 400,000 since 1997—double its size in 1989.

Having seen the effects of Burmese sanctions, it’s becoming clearer who has been helping the regime realise its military ambitions over the past 23 years. Although Western democracies like to take the moral high ground on human rights and freedoms, their unethical foreign policies are in practice little better than those of Burma’s neighbours, who nakedly abuse its resources. If the so-called liberal democracies want to demonstrate a genuine desire to promote democracy in Burma, they must cut off their economic ties with the regime. Unless unified and well-coordinated multilateral measures that can genuinely isolate the regime are introduced, the Burmese people will continue to suffer under a thinly disguised dictatorship.

Even if other countries in the region can be neither forced nor convinced to stop exploiting Burmese resources, the West staying away from doing business in the country could still hurt the regime and give Burmese a fighting chance.

Of course, eventually, it will be up to the people of Burma to stand on their own feet. Still, it’s crucial for those who have the luxury of freedom in their own countries to behave ethically and take their business elsewhere—not to Burma, where a dictatorship flourishes in a plethora of colourful disguises.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Zaw Nay Aung is director of Burma Independence Advocates in London