The tragic history of Burma over the past 50 years would be an appropriate theme for a contemporary Shakespeare. So at this moment the West would be wise to remember these lines from that poet’s Julius Caesar: “There is a tide in the affairs of men which, when taken on the flood, leads on to fortune. Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries”.
Now is the time to realize that a remarkable process of change has begun in Burma, but it is one which could all too easily be stopped in its tracks. For those who long supported a wide range of sanctions against the military regime, now is the time to cast aside doubts and caution and press for the early removal of almost all those sanctions.
Hopes in the country have risen to a high level with the recent overwhelming by-electoral success of Aung San Suu Kyi and her fellow National League for Democracy candidates. But expectations are also now running very high, and people doubtless expect change on the ground in their livelihoods to follow more quickly than would be possible even under the best of circumstances.
Speedy removal of U.S. and European sanctions, particularly on trade, investment, and loans by institutions such as the World Bank, can both help sustain the hopes of the people and speed the delivery of results.
The U.S. recently announced some easing of sanctions, but this is only the beginning. U.S. sanctions are anyway a complex mix of laws and executive orders. So understanding by Congress as well as bold moves by the executive are needed to bring the U.S. to the table as a major partner in Burma’s social and economic revival. This is no time for half-measures—or for little-by-little reductions of sanctions based on perceptions of further progress towards democracy.
Such progress is for sure desirable. But having achieved a taste of democracy and a measure of freedom to speak, unknown for so long, the people have other wants too. They want engagement with the outside world, nor just China, as essential in their return to being a normal nation. They want Asian Development Bank investment in roads and power. They want to restart the garment and other labor-intensive industries, which employed tens of thousands of women but which sanctions killed off.
They want help in rebuilding an educational system which was once among the best in the developing world, and ahead of China, India, and Thailand, etc. They want scholarships to Western universities in order to start the process of catching up—not with the West but with their own neighbors. They want to see foreign tourists, not just as a source of income but of feeling in contact with that brighter outside world to which so many of their own people have been exiled.
They now have a government which is committed in principle to economic reform, to freeing trade, removing bureaucratic controls, and welcoming foreign investment into manufacturing and services. But reform instincts are hobbled not just by the entrenched vested interests of cronies and the military, but by the sheer lack of skilled people who know how a modern economy works and who can implement changes.
Burma’s small core of reformers badly need and deserve the support of the countries which profess to be concerned with economic as well as political freedoms. They know they have become too dependent on China and must have unimpeded economic ties with the U.S. and EU, whose sanctions do not just deter their own trade and investment but are obstacles to investment from Asian countries such as Japan and Korea.
The dangers of a failure to sustain the momentum of change are very real. They could quickly lead not just to popular dissatisfaction with the leadership of President Thein Sein, the ex-military man who, to the surprise of most of the world, has so far proved committed to reform. They could also rebound against Aung San Suu Kyi, already quietly criticized by many admirers for being more interested in political and constitutional issues than livelihood ones.
Thein Sein is liked by the public for engaging with Aung San Suu Kyi, but he could find himself out on a limb if his moves are not adequately reciprocated by the U.S. and EU. In particular they could spur a backlash by conservative elements in the military who never liked liberalization policies and have especially close ties with China, and who regard the government party’s massive failure in the by-elections as evidence not of the need for change and reform but of the dangers of even a limited form of democracy.
For sure there are many things badly wrong with Burma. Doubts remain about the government’s sincerity in dealing with ethnic minority rebels. Press freedom is still very limited. Reliable information is hard to come by and cronyism and corruption are rampant, draining the little wealth there is into a few pockets.
But it is now hard to single out Burma as being conspicuously worse than countries such as China and Vietnam in many respects, or even U.S. allies such as Thailand and Indonesia in dealing with minority issues. In the case of the Kachin State, location of the most recent fighting, China is hardly blameless in providing markets across a porous border for the gems, timber, and drugs which help keep the conflict alive.
But with their sanctions, Western governments are now weakening their ability to influence the course of events at a critical moment. The time for lectures on democracy, the time for using sanctions as Aung San Suu Kyi’s political card are gone. Now is the time when engagement by developed-country companies and multilateral organizations can help not just the redevelopment of a once relatively prosperous developing nation.
They can also help the reform process by offering alternatives to Chinese investment, which is motivated mainly by China’s strategic interests, and to the clique of crony capitalists who have benefited from the opaque privatizations which transformed military men into rentier capitalists.
The rebuilding of Burma’s physical and intellectual capital will be a long and hard task. But those who commit themselves now to helping that worthy cause will surely be rewarded in time, at the very least with the goodwill of the people of that country.
End sanctions now.
Philip Bowring, former editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review, is a freelance columnist based in Hong Kong. He is a regular contributor to the International Herald Tribune.