From Sat Jan 7 07:00:28 2006
Date: Fri, 6 Jan 2006 16:10:28 -0600 (CST)
Subject: [NYTr] Zar Ni: Western pressure on Burma isn’t working
Article: 231612
To: undisclosed-recipients: ;

Western pressure on Burma isn’t working

By Zar Ni, The Independent, 4 January 2006

Sanctions and isolation only stymie the emergence of a viable civil society

Today marks the 58th anniversary of Burma's independence from Britain. Our history since then has been a troubled one. But the current debate over what to do about the country's military government, and the well-meaning prescriptions proposed in the West, have been generally simplistic and unhelpful. They over-emphasise democratisation above other important aspects of nation building, and seek to effect regime change through pressure and sanctions which are in many ways doing more harm than good. After a decade and a half of failed policy we—the opposition and the outside world—need to rethink our approach.

Burma's problems include pre-colonial ethnic and political divisions institutionalised and exacerbated by 100 plus years of Britain's colonial policy; by half a century of civil strife since independence supported by the US, and occasionally our neighbours India, China and Thailand; by a post-colonial leadership long on nationalist polemic and short on intellectual and administrative competence; and by nearly three decades of self-imposed isolationism.

There are also widespread human rights abuses, an ailing economy, decaying public services in health and education, a decade-old political impasse between the major opposition party led by Aung San Suu Kyi and the powerfully entrenched military junta; the world's second largest heroin trade along Sino-Burmese borders, and the country's deeply rooted authoritarian but populist mass culture.

Even if we had succeeded in securing and building on our democratically elected government in 1990, Burma's problems would be daunting; but since the country's widely unpopular junta has been singled out and transformed by the West into a global human rights whipping boy, we have no chance of rapid development while the rest of Asia, including Communist China and Vietnam, are lifting their citizens out of poverty and undergoing societal changes.

Some have argued that all Burma's ills are self-inflicted (by the ruling generals). The Burmese opposition and its supporters who subscribe to this view see no hope for reforms originating from or in association with the current junta. They seek a popular revolution inside the country, with supporting “big sticks” from the international community, as the only way of bringing about democratisation and economic progress.

To be sure, no elite in power, civilian or military, can be expected voluntarily to cave into voices for change. The Burmese generals are no exception; but this should not preclude the possibility of ushering in a new and improved order through other means, such as economic change. If change is not possible through coercion, as is the case of Burma, those of us who have been working for democratic change there need to think anew.

The protracted economic sanctions and international isolation of Burma only stymie the emergence of a viable civil society and economic forces that can function to bring about political change. For an open society - that ultimate goal of democratic and economic reforms—cannot be fostered through and in isolation.

The defiant Castro regime is a living testimony to the failed American (and, until recently, EU) policies, with no evidence that the Cuban people have been helped politically or economically by 40 years of Western sanctions. The current American efforts to Cubanise international policy toward Burma is wrong and it must be challenged.

A different, better balanced Burma policy is urgently needed. In addition to human rights issues, such a policy should take into account the daily economic hardship confronting ordinary Burmese, which can be addressed not through trendy “poverty-reduction” aid packages, but only through foreign investment-induced economic growth. It also needs to address national security and the interests of the country's most powerful institution—the armed forces—which shows no signs of implosion or splits. It must engage in a critical dialogue with the junta at all levels about nation building, including the need to institutionalise international human rights norms, to import technical know-how, to improve the quality of education and health, and to achieve environmental sustainability.

As her former colonial ruler, Britain is uniquely positioned to press for the multi-faceted nation-building policies on Burma within the EU, while serving as a moderating influence against the unilateralist excesses in Washington, which seems bent on turning this former British colony into a new American human rights “test-case” in South-east Asia, and in the world at large.